In all likelihood, Kobe Bryant will never reach the goal he set all those thousands of jump shots ago. He’ll probably never become the greatest basketball player ever. He is not Michael Jordan and probably never will be. He won’t match Bill Russell‘s ring count, and some will argue he won’t even go down as the best player of his generation. However, there’s one often overlooked aspect of his evolution that takes a backseat to no one. Kobe Bryant is a survivor.
Bryant’s notorious bulldog competitive drive manifested itself most memorably, at least for me, during a regular season game against Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic back in the 2002-03 season. First half. Second quarter. At the height of his powers, ‘Mac unleashed a nasty fake spin move that had the Mamba slipping all over the floor. Bryant wasn’t having it. He roared up the right side of the floor on the next possession. Never waited for a playcall. Never called for a screen. Never looked at anyone else on the floor. Dude simply took it to the rack, crammed on half the Magic team, then slapped the backboard and screamed so loudly the referees just had to T him up.
Yet as much fun as that is to watch, it never stood out as Bryant’s most endearing trademark. Instead, that has to be the way he survived. Through the early haters. Through the air balls at Utah. Through the battles with Shaq. Through the media turning on him. Through the constant obnoxious attacks from Bill Simmons. Through the mid-career malaise. Through the injuries. Through it all. During a nearly 20-year career that spanned three Presidents, 11 Lakers head coaches, and too many self-imposed nicknames, Bryant not only stayed in the limelight, he thrived. Very few players can say they’ve played 46,774 minutes. That’s a talent. That’s a skill. A long career is a productive one.
Bryant survived while the rest of his contemporaries faded. Allen Iverson lost his edge. Vince Carter hasn’t made an All-Star Game since 2007. Paul Pierce went full role player. Ray Allen retired. Even McGrady bloomed and wilted in less time than it takes Drake to write a diss record. Bryant? This rampant run of injuries is concealing this fact, but the 6-6 Laker star has never been anything but the most mesmerizing player on the court. That hasn’t changed, even on the day of his 37th birthday.
Bryant knows this too. He knows how to brand himself, from repeated persona changes to new haircuts to the first time he unveiled his tattoos to even a number change halfway through his career.
Bryant doesn’t do goodbyes. This is a man who hit two free throws with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. This is a man who, in his own words, “had to play essentially the whole year with a splint on” regarding a 2009 finger fracture. He just won’t. Go. Away.
Honestly? That’s fine with me. The day Kobe retires will officially be the closing of my childhood. I’ve seen other players retire that I grew up with, but this one will be different.
Before that day comes, however, it’s important to celebrate the good and the bad times. On his 37th birthday, we’re breaking down how he survived for 20 years in one of the most highly-competitive job markets on the planet. This is the Evolution of Kobe: Style, Sneakers, and ‘Ships.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney