Kobe Bryant is miserable. When the Lakers lose, he barely pretends to cover his disgust and frustration–with the shortcomings of less gifted and prescient teammates and with his own imperfections. When they win, the relief seems mild and fleeting, allowing him the brief luxury of exhaustion rather than any kind of joy. When things go badly on the court, his face painfully contorts. When he hits a big shot, he juts out his jaw and narrows his eyes, just an icier version of the same angry contempt. Over at SLAM, our pal Myles recently gave what is, to me, the definitive capsule of the Kobe enigma: He is “a man who pretends not to give a [dang, or possibly whup] what you think while making it quite evident that he plays for your approval.” He is desperate to win and be vindicated, but that vindication brings him no happiness. He wants us to believe in his aura of magnanimous, carefree stylishness, but turns cold at any suggestion of his own vulnerability.
KG is a totally different animal. In recent years, as Zaza Pachulia, Big Baby Davis and Jose Calderon can attest, his well known respect for authority has verged on bullying. (We should never be surprised at the easy, slippery relationship between power and domination.) But as the playoffs have shown us, the other KG is still alive; the hyper ecstatic who bounds around the court like a child and bellows to the rafters, who seems close to exceeding the boundaries of his ridiculous body and becoming pure spirit. Who shares with Kobe a manic competitive fire but whose joys and pains are totally transparent.
Despite their vast differences, these two are conjoined in ways that go beyond even their four playoff meetings and their shared history as mid-’90’s teen prodigies. Both seem haunted by the Marlo Stanfield of the NBA, Rajon Rondo, the ruthless, unsmiling kid intent on usurping his elders. In so many ways, Rondo seems to represent all that these two are fast losing: the energized legs; the youthful arrogance; the brash forgetting of time and death.
Both Kobe and KG, in their different ways, also seem haunted by our absolutist culture of victory; I’m talking about the notion that a simple binary, winning and losing, is the only arbiter of a player’s, or a team’s, ultimate worth. That winning a title is the only measure of real success, that a player’s place in history can be deeply altered by the result of one insanely competitive series (for a typical example of this, check this Bill Simmons novella and note the way he manipulates his all-time player rankings based on this Finals’ possible outcomes).
To me, this account gets it wrong in two ways. First, it operates on the mistaken assumption–one that the Jordan era seems to have nurtured, if not created–that a team’s fortunes are entirely predicated on the ability of their star to “will them to victory”. We seem to believe that these great players operate in a vacuum. We seem to constantly forget how Jordan struggled until–aided by Phil Jackson–Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came into their own. We forget Kobe’s epic frustrations that lasted precisely until Pau Gasol arrived in LA. And we forget the tragedy of Garnett’s futile Wolves years (well, we don’t forget; we remember that really, really well). The irony here is that, in all of these cases, these great players only reached their greatest heights after ceding some power, that their greatness was actually magnified in a genuine team setting.
The other huge problem with this way of thinking is the notion that one playoff loss can somehow nullify everything a team has already accomplished. Especially this year, with so many teams doing so many magnificent things, I find this view is kind of shameful. Throughout these playoffs, the Lakers’ ability to flow in and out of the triangle and use its nuances of player and ball movement to inflect their more traditional half-court sets has been totally inspiring (not to mention providing yet another object lesson in just how far the Wolves have to go, how many levels of knowledge and experience and skill separate them from these Lakers). And, especially until the Finals, Kobe has shown an unprecedented comfort with his teammates and his own role in the offense. He moves the ball; he artfully finds open space on the floor; he allows his team’s passing and movement to create shots; its hard to imagine someone so good playing with such trust, confidence and presence.
As for Garnett and the Celtics, their miraculous playoff transfiguration has been well documented. In their victories over Miami, Cleveland and Orlando, Boston has operated at near-cosmic levels of group awareness and intensity. This originated in Rondo’s rise of course (and in the veteran’s ability to accept that rise), but also in Garnett’s defensive captaincy, his smothering of Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis, his ego-less offensive work, and his gritty reckoning with his own aging body. None of this–not the Lakers’ brilliance, nor Garnett and the Celtics’ fearsome run–could possibly be tainted by a Game-7 loss.
We paint with these broad, historical brushstrokes because its easier. Its less complicated to remember that Jordan is the greatest player ever because he won six titles than to remember that, for two games in 1996, the Sonics’ pressure defense totally flabbergasted the Bulls. Its easier to look back and imagine that the result of a series was predestined because of the star’s innate qualities than to remember the razor-thin moments, the minute tactical moves, the slight surges in energy and focus that turned the tide one way or the other.
What I’m saying is, lets not do that. Lets try to appreciate Kobe Bryant not because he has won this many titles but because his fading 20-footer is an awesome sight to behold. Lets try to imagine that Kevin Garnett is amazing not because a Game 7 victory would somehow magically alter his position among the greatest players ever, but because watching him play defense is beautiful. And lets try to enjoy this game not because the result will forever alter the balance of basketball history, but because it will likely be ridiculously competitive and psychotically intense, filled with tiny flows and shifts, myriad nuances of strategy and style. The game is played by human beings, imperfect despite their immense gifts. If we forget that, we miss the entire thing.