Everyone knows playing with Kobe Bryant is difficult, but people tend to focus on those things related to his personality and playing style. Kobe demands hard work and total commitment, doesn’t trust easily, has the ball in his hands a lot, and so on.
Noted far less frequently are the ways in which Bryant’s presence over nearly two decades has Kobe-fied the city and media, and how that influences his teammates, both present and potential. Take this exchange with Jeremy Lin, following Tuesday’s loss at home to Phoenix:
The Lakers are a bad team off to a terrible start, and Lin hasn’t looked good (his mini-bounceback Tuesday notwithstanding). They’re all frustrated. But after the game, in which Kobe scored 39 points on 37 shots over 44 minutes – voluminous usage likely annoying teammates on one level or another, even if we all understand why Bryant might feel compelled to take this much on himself – the focus isn’t simply on Kobe. That’s to be expected. It’s about how much Kobe poured into the game. How hard Kobe worked. How Kobe gave it his all.
I wasn’t there, but have heard this done enough to know how common questions like these are, and more importantly, how they sound to the athlete. Allow me to translate:
What is asked: “Jeremy, Kobe played 44 minutes and scored 39 points. He’s 36 years old. What’s it like to see a guy like him give it his all and post big numbers, 19 years into his career?”
What he hears: “Jeremy, Kobe played 44 minutes and scored 39 points. He’s 36 years old. What’s it like to see a guy like him give it his all and post big numbers 19 years into his career because you guys around him are such untalented shitbox slack-asses he has no alternative?”
Nobody outworks Kobe, but Kobe isn’t the only player who works hard. Kobe has a remarkable tolerance for pain, but he’s not the only guy who plays hurt. The implication of questions like the one asked Lin isn’t simply that the other Lakers are failing themselves, their teammates, or the organization, but that they’re failing Kobe. And it’s insulting.
Five games in, the Lakers don’t have a problem with effort, but talent. Guys are doing what they can, they just can’t do enough. Most of the time, someone asks the question and Kobe’s teammate delivers the “right” answer, marveling at Kobe’s work ethic and effort, and the quote is there to fill whatever need. Occasionally, you get a less filtered answer like Lin’s.
This is part of the landscape for potential free agents coming to Los Angeles. Our collective perception of Lakers basketball and how players are supposed to be successful now reflects Kobe’s unique makeup, his accomplishments, and the mythology surrounding him. The annoyances might be minor individually (how I’d classify Tuesday’s postgame exchange) but they do add up, and make playing here less appealing. And for stars, constant comparisons to Kobe can be draining (and they won’t end just because he retires).
At this point, Bryant is a master of media, knowing exactly how to convey any message he feels necessary, whether publicly through Twitter, for example, or behind the scenes. He’s unafraid to play those cards. But the phenomenon I’m noting here isn’t really something he controls or instigates. It’s an evolution. Having someone like him in a city like L.A. on a franchise like the Lakers for so long with so much success can’t help but influence the culture.
But it’s real, and it matters.