While Kobe Bryant can elicit some pretty polarized takes on how great he is or isn’t, how nice he is or isn’t, how good of a leader/teammate that he is or isn’t, and everything else involved with historic players, what you can’t deny is his psychotic, competitive nature that has fueled one of the greatest careers you could ever imagine. To be completely honest with everybody, I was beyond jealous that I wasn’t in the Target Center Sunday night when Kobe passed Michael Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list. Sure, it’s come in what will essentially be a lost/wasted season for Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers, but history is history, and the Target Center saw something no other building will ever see — Kobe passing Jordan on the all-time scoring list.
The game was another injury-riddled loss by the Wolves, desperate for the direction of a point guard with a little bit of a veteran touch at his disposal. But there were aspects to this game that were fascinating. Mostly, they resided around the burning desire of Kobe to kill the defender in front of him, despite the Hall of Famer being at the end of his rope athletically (relatively speaking, of course). 36-year old Kobe Bryant plays a megalomaniacal brand of basketball. It’s both an inspiration to those that have come after him and a cautionary tale of finding the right balance between hubris and a pathos of sorts. That’s not a knock on Bryant either. If anything, it’s a compliment about a player that by all historical measurements shouldn’t be able to do what he does anymore.
Kobe is the league’s third leading scorer after 1,269 games, 18-plus years, and over 46,000 minutes in the NBA. That just doesn’t happen. The retort is about how he’s shooting under 40.0% from the field while hoisting all of these shots that allow him to be the scoring leader. And it’s completely correct. He’s allowed to play a certain way that almost no other player has ever been afforded at this point in their careers. To me, that’s why it’s so impressive and it’s a blueprint for competitiveness that I pray someone on the Wolves picks up. I’ll explain:
“You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that.” – Michael Jordan.
When I watch Andrew Wiggins play basketball, I feel like I see a burning desire of someone trying to figure out how to get it right. I say that I “feel like I see” it because I think too often we assume the psychological makeup of an athlete and I’m trying to avoid doing that these days. I’m not going to pretend that I know what Wiggins is feeling as a person. I just know that I don’t see him make the same dumb, rookie mistakes that most highly touted prospects do. That’s not to say he doesn’t make dumb rookie mistakes, but he’s definitely in a different mold when it comes to trying to figure out the game on the court.
There’s a measured appearance to his game, rarely forcing too much but always approaching the task at hand with a competitive nature that’s seemingly on display in everything he does. After the game, Bryant was asked about Wiggins and his response was, “It’s like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool.” I don’t believe Kobe was talking about the style of play or even the skill set the two young versions of what their overall careers will/did end up becoming, respectively. I think Kobe was looking at the competitive nature of Wiggins and seeing that same fire in had nearly 19 years ago.
You don’t defend the way Wiggins does at just 19 years old in the NBA without being intensely competitive. It may not come out in expletive-laced tirades like we saw with Kobe or a young Kevin Garnett or a young Chris Paul hitting a player in the 1-2-2 zone, but you see it with the way he accepts to role of defending the other team’s best scorer and evolves as a defender from game to game, week to week, month to month. After the game, Bryant let us in on his thoughts about competition, via Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:
Kobe: "I think the competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people when you peel back … "
— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) December 15, 2014
Kobe: "…what's inside of a person to compete and be at that high level. It scares a lot of people that are comfortable being average."
— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) December 15, 2014
I think this is a brilliant quote as a peek into the mindset of what separates professional athletes from people like us and the truly great professional athletes from their peers. Competition is scary for some because there’s always the chance you can lose. And if you lose or fail at the goal of winning, it takes a lot of introspection in order to learn what you’ve done wrong or what you could change to do better and then apply that in a disciplined manner to your professional routine. Few people in the history of the NBA have done this better than Kobe, even if at times it looks like he’s being a bullheaded, selfish version of what a star is.
It does take greatness to believe in yourself to the degree that the competition doesn’t faze you. Win or lose, you know you have work to do to continue to chase the goals you’ve set for yourself. If that goal is simply to be in the NBA, make a lot of money, and live a comfortable life then you can do that. If your goal is to make it to the Hall of Fame and be remembered as one of the important figures in NBA history, you can do that too. If your goal is to spend every day of your childhood watching Michael Jordan and learning his moves, only to be so brazen to believe you can be better than that someday and actually put in nearly two decades of professional work trying to prove it, you can do that as well.
That’s the amazing thing about Kobe: His competitive nature drove him to the crazy egotistical goals he set for himself. Last week for CBSSports.com, I tried to wrap my head around the idea that while Kobe and Jordan have been compared, the chase was always about becoming the standard by which other players will be judged. I settled on Kobe being the gatekeeper to Jordan’s standard of historical greatness. It means that you have to top Kobe before you can approach the idea of topping MJ and there’s no getting around that.
It’s a lofty, foolish goal that some player will come along and try to take down. I don’t think that person is Wiggins, by the way. There’s no way we’ve seen enough from him in this first quarter of his first season to have any inkling he could ever dare to be a historic player. What we have seen is that his competitive nature allows him to take on tasks that weed out most players in their first year. And that’s a start toward become a star in this league. From there, you can become a superstar and that can beget becoming an icon. An icon can become a legend and a legend can challenge that standard, but so much competition has to be slayed in the process and it’s a process that spans decades, not just a few years.
It’s up to the player to be driven enough to want to be great and that doesn’t guarantee anything. You have to be cocky. You have to be arrogant. You have to be confident. And that confidence can never waver. Whether you’re in your first big playoff moment and you airball multiple shots or hitting game-winner after game-winner or you’re leading the league in scoring with a low shooting percentage but you’re finding ways to get to the free throw line when your athleticism has failed you, that drive inside you has to reside and it has to burn hotter than dicyanoacetylene (look it up).
As for now, Wiggins is working on channeling that competitive fire toward becoming a better player and he had a great role model in a couple of games the last two weeks when he was asked to defend Kobe. We saw mixed reviews of that assignment. There were times in which Bryant used every trick and bit of knowledge to score effortlessly against Wiggins. Wiggins kept coming back for more. Wiggins kept trying to find ways to defend Bryant. Some of those ways succeeded and some of those ways led to buckets or fouls drawn by Kobe. But Wiggins kept being a competitor against Kobe.
That’s where it starts. Battling that competition against yourself and your own goals is the next, never-ending step for all of the great ones.