Lakers 100, Timberwolves 94: Kobe shows the blueprint for history

KobeToWiggins

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:

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.

Congrats, Kobe.

Share this because Rubio would pass this along:

Leave a Reply

  1. I’m not watching the games because I’m overseas. But Bazz is young and by all accounts a great scorer already. I wonder if he competes against “highly touted” Wiggins on a nightly basis, and if that Player of the Month thing fueled his 28 points?

    Wiggins is a great story, but I think the narrative here should be shifting to Bazz’s ceiling, because the second year bruva is doing it on the court.

  2. I can’t stand Kobe Bryant…and it has nothing to do with basketball. I can’t wait until he retires. Just wanted to share lol

  3. I’m very excited to see how Wiggins handles guarding LeBron. The strength difference between them will be tough for the young guy to overcome but it’ll be fun to watch. He’s gotten a good slew of defensive assignments so far to hopefully have him prepared for the king. It’s been a nice progression from Joe Johnson to Wade to kobe and in a few weeks the king. Fun times, good article.

  4. I disagree with most of this post. While Kobe is an interesting player and undeniably talented, I don’t think he’s particularly worthy of emulation. While he does have records and championships, if you look at his career you can see that he’s always gained these things while benefiting from playing under arguably the best coach in NBA history and playing on teams that were the most talented in the league despite being less than the sum of their parts. Shaq during the Laker years was absolutely the best big man in the league, and in my opinion the best player in the league period. But he couldn’t stand playing with Kobe and he left. Same for Bynum (he sucks now but there were a few years there were he was a force to be reckoned with), same for Pau Gasol, and same for Phil Jackson. I think it’s particularly fitting that he earned this record on a team that is doing it’s best to compete for worst in the league. But Kobe is doing great.

    At the end of the day there are superstars who put themselves first and their teams first. Kobe is the former and that is why his organization is constantly had to work around him in order to win, and it’s why he personally is less than the sum of his parts. I think our players can do better when choosing role models.

  5. Interesting read. Well written too.

    Keep thinking Wiggins might be a great one. I know that’s getting ahead of myself. Just enjoying his progress and hoping he puts it all together. It’s fun to watch.

  6. I was nice to see the Wolves compete and play a game close for a change of pace. The bad news: It was against the Lakers, who are very not good right now. I wonder how long we can function without Mo Williams. Hopefully he’s back soon, as it is sort of surreal to have one (sorta) point guard available. This game was very winnable if we hadn’t shot ourselves in the foot a few too many times–which is impressive in a way, considering our injuries. The officiating didn’t help us, either. One thing that was disturbing was how much Boozer manhandled Young. Young is in a tailspin on offense, and the hope is that he’ll get better soon. But, though active on D, he sometimes looks like a small forward or shooting guard on D against Powers. It makes me uneasy.

    Classic Wolves: Minnesota, at home, just happens to be the team Kobe makes a major milestone against. I used to hate Kobe, like the Darth Vader of the NBA. I think he’s grown up, and I have grown to tolerate and appreciate him more. I was very glad to see him come back from the Achilles so well. At the same time, this record, even with my current Kobe appreciation, made me go, ‘meh.’ Yeah, he’s a great player. Yeah, he’s competitive, maybe overly so. He recently broke a record before this one–most missed shots ever by a player in the NBA (Jordan, who Kobe just passed on the points list is number six in most missed shots). That sort of says it all.

  7. I wasn’t able to actually watch much of the game, but I was wondering what people thought of Wiggin’s defense on Kobe. The couple minutes I saw did not look good, but I won’t judge the young man based on a few possessions. Box scores and highlights make it seem like Kobe had his way when it really counted, closing out the game. Thoughts?

  8. Rebuilding teams have certain thresholds on the road to getting better; one of the lowest bars to jump over is having a bad team underestimate you, beat them, and then beat them again when they take you seriously. While it’s not necessarily disappointing that they lost the game, it would’ve been nice to see them clear that low hurdle.

  9. Put in a trade for Lance Stephenson for Corey-Shabazz or some other vets… at least try….some of the calls were awful, kobe got the record from a cheap call… the last few games our team is really starting to click, keep your heads up. Hard work will pay off… stay positive Wolves!

  10. That’s a great point, gjk. Such a long road to the point where the Wolves are competitive. Looking forward to getting Rubio back, although it sounds like that is still about a month away.

  11. Young Wolves have to learn how to win, to take care of business, especially at home. Even if they just start with poorer teams, there are some home games that they should demand of themselves that they win, and then find a way to get it done.

  12. Really well said gjk, I felt they should have won this game. There are not going to be many games this season where we go in believing the Wolves should win. It was close and if not for a couple mental mistakes they would have won.

    Still in the loss we are seeing glimmers of what might be. I mean they are starting a rookie at PG (who is really a 2) and a second year player at center and they do not have a backup for either of them. That’s just crazy. And they still dang near won…

  13. I’ve always felt that Kobe’s temperament is fundamentally not suited for team sports, so I have admired his ability to be so successful at an endeavor in which he seems less psychologically predisposed to excel at than probably even the average person on the street. I am not saying he is selfish or not a team player, I am saying he is mentally wired to pursue and value personal excellence and achievement, the way that a violin virtuoso like Paganini was, the way a boxer like Money Mayweather is. I sometimes wonder what he would have been like had he become a golfer, MMA fighter or tennis player, assuming aptitude at each sport being equal to his basketball talents. I imagine he would have made Tiger Woods or Roger Federer look like local country club pros and Jon Jones a bouncer at your local honkytonk bar.

    Playing and succeeding at a team sport like basketball must be to Kobe what functioning in normal society is for autistic genius and writer Temple Grandin – he has to take everything his nature commands him to think and do and repack and rearrange it in a way that he has been taught to understand will be acceptable to “normals”. The resulting output is often brilliant, always impressive, but sometimes unnatural and occasionally even incomprehensible to normal people. Actually, given Kobe’s extraordinary focus and drive, borderline narcissism and utter lack of empathy toward other people’s feelings and ideas, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was pretty far along on the Asperger’s Syndrome spectrum himself. It would explain also why he modeled himself so closely after Jordan and actually succeeded, as both emulation of observed stimuli and obsessiveness are characteristics of high functioning people with AS.

    Anyway, Wiggins seems like a nice kid and not temperamentally any way like Kobe. I don’t think Kobe is a blueprint for anyone who is relatively normal from an emotional/mental perspective, whether or not he is also hardworking and competitive. Guys like Dirk, LeBron, Durant or Curry seem like much better role models to me. Just because Kobe Bryant has to be an “a-hole” to win doesn’t mean anybody else, particularly Wiggins, does.