It’s understandable if Timberwolves fans have mixed feelings towards Kobe Bryant. The recently-retired superstar dominated the Wolves throughout his career; he won 47 of his 64 regular season meetings with Minnesota, and was an integral part of defeating the most successful team in franchise history in Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals. (He was also party to the play where Ricky tore his ACL in 2012, and while it’s probably unfair to hold that against him, I wouldn’t blame anyone if they do.)
Throughout the Casey, Wittman, McHale, and Rambis years of sadness, the Target Center became a welcoming place for the Black Mamba. When he came to town, a sea of yellow and purple jerseys were here to greet him. Adoring fans cheered loudly for the visitors, a cruel reminder that the two teams that were once nearly equals (for one series, anyway) had divorced sharply from that reality. At the center of it all, the one constant was Kobe, who went from vexing opponent to cruel bully, cheered on by fellow citizens while toying with the hapless hometown team in their own building. So yes, if you resent him, for these (and perhaps other, more dignified reasons), it’s understandable.
I’ve long held mixed (or even negative) views about Kobe, but I couldn’t help but find it cool when he’d make passing comments about the young Wolves, especially Andrew Wiggins. Following Kobe’s first matchup with Wiggins in December of 2014, he said it was like “looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago.” In February of this year, the two shared a moment on the floor after the 20-year-old hit a turnaround jumper that was a carbon copy of a Kobe move, with the elder Bryant saying “that looked familiar” as the two jogged back up the floor, and Wiggins admitting, “I got it from you.”
My favorite piece of commentary came after Kobe’s final game here, a 123-122 Timberwolves victory on December 9th. Kevin Martin had his best outing of the season, dropping 37 points. Towns had 26, 14 and 3 blocks, Shabazz had 15 off the bench, and Andrew Wiggins added 19 as well. It was an entertaining game between a Timberwolves team that was about to fall off and a truly pathetic Lakers team, but the real story of the night was Kobe, who’d announced his coming retirement the week prior, and whose farewell tour was just getting started.
The crowd was plenty populated with Lakers jerseys, as expected. As Kobe was introduced, they roared. He turned it over on his first touch, hit a long two on his second, and turned it over again on his third. He exited the game after missing his first four shots of the third quarter and did not return, finishing with 11 points on 13 shots in 24 minutes, a performance that was more or less his standard during his final two seasons.
After the game, there was a special media session with Kobe – another part of his farewell tour, I’m sure. It was part of the arrangement; after every final game in every NBA city, he’d meet with reporters, politely answer the same set of questions for ten minutes or so, then take off to start the whole process again. Most of his answers on the night of December 9th were boiler plate, but there was an exception when it came to one particular Minnesota player.
When asked about his previous comments about Wiggins reminding him of himself, Kobe chuckled. “Well, now he’s got the hair, too. That nappy hair… someone tell him that he needs to comb it.” He said Wiggins’ footwork, especially in the post, was much better than it was in their first meeting in October, and that the Wolves’ core of young players were all “hard workers, that have done nothing but improve. Wiggins has improved tremendously. I think they have a great young nucleus. The city has a good core.”
It’d be silly to think Wiggins is the next Kobe; there will never be another like him. Even if you dislike Kobe, or reject that comparison as being silly, that doesn’t make the attention any less interesting, and maybe even exciting. For all of what Kobe is, good or bad, it’s indisputable that he’s a basketball savant. The game consumes him wholly. Those of us on the outside see big picture things, narratives, statistics, the black and white ledger of wins and losses. Those on the inside see them, too, but they see other things as well, such as the very real feeling of standing across from another player, the little moves and twitches they use to get free, the raw leaping ability, the polished footwork used to gain leverage or space to fire a shot.
Clearly, Kobe Bryant sees something in Andrew Wiggins. And for a few nights this past season, he let us know exactly what it is.