Enough has been said about Kobe Bryant’s retirement – the staggering scoring, the remorseless shooting, the indomitable will to recover from an Achilles injury at age 37. I’m not sure there’s very much I can add. I could say that Kobe Bryant has dominated my sports life as long as I have cared about sports, and now that one constant is gone. I could say that as a young boy, transplanted from Southern California to Asia by capitalism, Kobe was one of the ways that I held on to the United States – and that when I moved back, my fluent basketball fandom allowed me to connect with the New World.
But Kobe’s retirement drives home the fact that Kobe really has been one of a kind. There are very few people who have built a great career in one city, with one franchise and one community. My favorite sports teams alone have many lessons to teach about loyalty – and how fleeting that loyalty can be.
The Dodgers taught me – almost perfectly as it turned out – that heroes never stay. How soon we’ve forgotten that for most of my life, the Dodgers were operated like a middle-market team. I am 21, and Clayton Kershaw is still the only player I have ever seen that has made a commitment to reigning in Chavez Ravine.
As the Dodgers continue to spend and spend, perhaps more stars will establish themselves in the City of Angels. But for a long while it seemed that every good Dodgers player either left home for a richer team (JD Drew, Paul Lo Duca) or came to LA on the back end of their career, searching for a hometown swan song (Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent). There were no legendary boys in blue for me to idolize. Until Kershaw signed his gargantuan contract, there had not been any for a quarter of a century.
Now that the Dodgers are rich, they teach a different lesson: that long reigns can exist. But what kind of lesson is that? Certainly it’s not a lesson in loyalty. If the Dodgers had ponied up back in the day and JD Drew had spent the rest of his career in Dodger blue, would that really be loyalty on his part? Or would it just be being rich? It’s hard to say, but the more money influences sports – as it should; players deserve to be compensated for their play – the clearer it becomes that players have to do what’s best for their family, and that loyalty to their kin is more important than loyalty to a franchise that itself rarely condescends to offer the same deference to its finest stars.
The Lakers, as usual, are almost orthogonal to the Dodgers experience – a cash-flush team that discards nearly everybody as soon as they lose the ability to contribute to the glory of the franchise. The Lakers are a particularly cruel bunch, I have to admit: General manager Mitch Kupchak isn’t one for sentimentality. But in the era of the punitive salary cap, it takes a certain ruthlessness to hack it in the NBA.
Derek Fisher – the great Lakers captain – was brutally salary-dumped to Oklahoma City. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were unceremoniously shipped off in the infamous Chris Paul trade, until David Stern blocked it for reasons equally unrelated to Lakers pride. Metta World Peace saw his contract bought out and ended up in China, until the reeling Lakers brought him back in a blatant ploy to sell more tickets.
In the vast and glorious Lakers Empire, loyalty is reserved for a select few. But when you think about it, the price of Kobe’s final years – the salary cap hell that Kobe’s gigantic contract put the Lakers through, and the consequent fall of the Kobe era – demonstrates both that sports teams can show true loyalty, and that the price of such loyalty is all too high, which goes a long way towards explaining why it is so rare. It’s just business. Kobe was just so good that he made “business” work.
The Lakers permitted Kobe Bryant to end his career on a sentimental note, but there was never any room for sentimentality in Kobe’s game. Kobe was the sort of singleminded, fanatical force of nature who even tried hard in All-Star Games. His exit interview with Ramona Shelburne showed that even though he has mellowed with age, he remains intense and obsessed with his game. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring about your play. As for his service to the team, he was always going to go out with as much ceremony and love as any player can possibly get today.
But the rarity of Kobe’s achievement is hardly coincidental. Frankly, I’m also not sure that loyalty is a concept that really fits in American sports in the 21st century. The notion of “sports loyalty” was built by the great city legends – the Ted Williamses and Bill Russells of the world. But Williams played during a time when baseball players were essentially forced to stay with their team. Russell played in an NBA without a salary cap. And teams were as unsentimental back then as they are today. Today, players can move around and teams can bargain for their services. And with the sheer amount of money in the game today, it’s not surprising that a player’s ties to a franchise can only go so far.
Kobe was an LA legend in the way that Shaq, having been traded before his time, will never be – but like the Dodgers’ bygone penury, we have to remember that Kobe built that relationship with the city in spite of himself. This was still the Kobe that insisted that the Lakers had to choose between him and Shaq; more to the point, the Kobe who publicly agitated to be traded to a better team. We have forgotten these things because Kobe ended up staying, and winning. He has five titles in Los Angeles; he deserves to go out as a king. But a lot of luck went into Kobe Bryant’s reign in LA. He was perhaps the purest example we’ve ever seen of lightning in a bottle.
Kobe Bryant was a product of his time, and he shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
Winston Shi is demanding The Daily choose between him and Shaq. Give him your support at [email protected].