Dear Mr. Bryant: An Open Letter to My Childhood Idol
Dear Mr. Bryant,
Look, we’ve known each other for almost 20 years. So I feel like I can tell you this with complete, total honesty:
It hurts, Kob. (Can I call you Kob? I’m gonna call you Kob.)
Season ending injury after season ending injury, my heart can’t take this kind of emotional rollercoaster for much longer. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s time for you to hang the kicks up.
Hell no. I’d never speak such blasphemy.
I’m saying, and I mean this in the most genuinely concerned way: it’s time to evolve yet again.
Now when you came into the league, with that shaved head and toothy grin, number 8 on your back and cockiness spilling out of your ears, I was sold. I didn’t see much of you because my favorite player was still my man Eddie Jones, but when you finally came into your own, ‘fro and all?
I knew I was going to be a Kobe fan for the rest of my life.
I swear I wore the yellow armband high on my scrawny 5th grader bicep just like you did. I begged my dad to find me a purple leg sleeve like you used to wear. I shot jumpers with both legs kicking a little forward, just like you used to. My parents copped me both the Kobe 1s and 2s from Adidas and I would be lying if I said I wore any other shoes those years. I tried to grow a ‘fro, then upon realizing my hair doesn’t grow like that, I resigned to spiking it. I bought a biography about you in the book fair and literally absorbed it in one night. I spent hours in my backyard pretending I was playing for the Lakers, starting in the back court with you, Game 7 versus the Kings or Spurs, again and again.
Point is, I was with you.
During the whole Colorado ordeal, I stuck it through. I was telling everyone I could it was nothing. I guess that was the right age for me to see you go through that, because I was still too innocent to realize what those charges meant. To me, you were still the invincible basketball player that no injury could take down, that was 2 shots from catching fire and dropping 40 that night, every night.
Then Shaq left, and we went through that mini dark age for the Lakers. You took the whole city onto your back (despite that weird period of time when you were almost a Clipper, but I would’ve bought my #8 Clipper jersey that same day if you had dipped). The ‘fro was long gone, and there was a hunger, a nastiness in your face. Even with all the scrubs around you (and I swear there were new ones every year), you were easily the most lethal on the basketball court. Nobody could guard you. Nobody WANTED to guard you.
Playing with all that fury, all the anger taken out on the court, I was in awe every night. This was when I still held dreams of playing in the NBA, the first Filipino to do it (shout out Jordan Clarkson). Anything you wanted to do, you’d do. Shower threes on a team? Been there. Dunk on 7 footers? Done that. Weave and slice the lane, finishing with a reverse on the opposite side? Old news. Baseline fadeaway? Could do it in your sleep. Stop on a dime pull-up J off the break? Unstoppable. You had the offensive arsenal of the entire All Star rosters all piled into one player. I swore you would make shots harder than they needed to be, just because the game would be a little too easy/boring for you otherwise.
And then you switched to #24.
I was like everyone else when it happened. Duh, one over Jordan. (C’mon Kanye, I could’ve written that line). But there was the next evolution. You went from cocky skywalker with an average J, trying to dunk the ball every time he touched it, to ‘fro bearing explosive sidekick trying to step out from a large shadow, to frustrated lone wolf with the type of relentless offensive firepower that could outscore a whole team (what up Dallas?).
Now you were taking people to the post, abusing that turnaround fadeaway. You were bullying rookies and picking your spots. Everything suddenly looked like it had become easier to you except you had actually got even better. You were the veteran who knew every trick in the book, who had seen every move and then proceeded to learn how to do it better. The improvement had gotten down to the smallest of details. The footwork. The shoulder placement to gain the tiniest separation. The varying release points. The head fakes. The ball fakes. Where you would have just started relentlessly gunning, now you were breaking the game down. Smaller guy guarding you? Set up on the low block. Slower guy guarding you? Take him off the dribble. Taller guy giving you a cushion? Rise up and hit the trey. Defense collapsing? Kick out to a shooter. Double team? Draw, then find the open man. Man playing you one on one? You gotta be fuckin kidding me. You were smarter, yet just as unguardable. A different animal, but same beast. (Appropriately ripped from the Kobe System).
It was almost unfair.
Almost is the key word, cause as a Laker fan I was loving it. When we got Gasol, it was a wrap.
Two of the smartest players on the court at the same time. Loved the beautiful symphony of basketball that you two composed within the triangle.
And man, I was riding that wave happily all the way until Phil left for the last time. Lebron started to come up in debates with you as to who was the best, but no matter what, in my heart, it was just you. He had the physical gifts mixed with the skill. But you were simply a pure maestro on the court. The mix of finesse and creativity, coupled with the evidence of constant repetition from your legendary hours of practicing are a blessing to have witnessed. If I was banished to a deserted island, never to watch a game again, I’d be content knowing I watched your genius on the hardwood.
And then D’Antoni came. Now at this point we all know how the nightmare plays. A Lakers team that was doomed from the start (a.k.a. the veto). Yet you dragged that team almost singlehandedly into the 8th spot, at the cost of your Achilles. I guess it’s only fair that the tendon that dropped the greatest warrior in Greek mythology was the same that dropped you on that night against the Warriors. Any other injury would seem just a little too mortal.
And I remember where I was when you shot those two free throws. I always will. (Did anyone else get goosebumps?)
Your return was a long one, but I was confident. I’d seen you evolve before, I knew I’d see you do it again. I was ready for the old man at the YMCA game, the Andre Miller trickery on a whole new level. I was ready for more head fakes, more post moves, more play creating for others.
And just like that we were robbed again by that knee fracture. It wasn’t time for you to come back yet. The world wasn’t ready.
Then you started dropping in player rankings, critics quoted Father Time more than ratchets quote Marilyn Monroe. Suddenly, everyone had gone to med school and could confidently say you were done. The doubt was everywhere, but I was still just as confident.
Kobe with a full year of rest? C’mon, this is going to be a rebirth of insane proportions, I told them.
And this season started, and there you were, still putting up numbers. The bounce was gone, but the smarts were still there. The volume was high, but I’ll be damned if I was watching to see any other players take shots anyway. I wasn’t there to see them, I was tuned into the Time Warner Cable Sports Network every game night for #24. Haters had their analytics, they had their fuel. Old fans turned into your biggest critic. The “Kobe doesn’t pass memes” were all over the Internet.
But I was with you the whole time. Sure it wasn’t winning basketball, but damn did it feel good to see you back on the court. And that’s all I really cared about. You passed Jordan this year on the scoring list, and it was a great moment. Some fans were coming back around, remembering just how great you really are.
Until that damn rotator cuff. Seeing you in that sling crushed me more than when they discontinued Sprite Remix. But I’ll tell you, I felt a swell of pride knowing you tried playing that game left handed. You were just that kind of warrior. Those 19 years of greatness and you were still unwilling to go down without a fight.
And that’s why at this stage, it’s time for the next evolution. Father Time is undefeated, but only because so many athletes stubbornly enter a battle with him. It takes a special brand of athlete to walk confidently into the twilight of his career and accept the limitations as an opportunity rather than a curse.
The Lakers have some young talent, eager for the chance to learn from the franchise’s greatest star. (Yes, I’m biased. No hate to Magic or Kareem or Wilt or West or Shaq). Nobody cares if you score 50 anymore, Kob. You’ve been there, you’ve done it over 20 times. Nobody expects you to dunk over whole teams anymore. You already baptized Dwight Howard himself. Nobody wants you to take 35 shots a game. We’ve seen that era of the Lakers, and it was ugly. (Your game was beautiful but the record was ugly). To your biggest fans, you have nothing left to prove. You’ll always be the GOAT for me, personally, and I’m sure there are many that feel the same.
At this point, the impressive move would be for you to become the facilitator that you’ve always shown you can be when you want. The triple double threat that you flirted with being this season. The mentor to young star guard Jordan Clarkson. The wise veteran to stabilize future star Julius Randle. The willing teacher to whoever the Lakers grab in the draft this summer. You have 19 seasons of experience of wisdom that players would kill for the opportunity to learn from. Those are the assists that have more value than any you would get on the court.
As for me? Well, Kob, just as you evolved, so have I. I grew up just as your game did. When you were the cocky young dunk artist, I was the 6 year old just amazed by all the aerial acrobatics and high flying athleticism. When you were the super athletic second fiddle to Shaq trying to become “the man” in LA, I was the elementary school goody- two shoes trying to find his way into the popular crew. When you were the assassin playing with fury night in and night out, I was the middle schooler who had moved to yet another city/school, and I related to your dominance (academically, I was a nerd) as well as your loneliness. By the time you became the all-encompassing #24, I was in high school, trying to find my passion, what I was good at, what I could be great in. You gave me that framework, that motivation to keep working and keep improving. And when you won those titles, I was entering college, ready to achieve my goals, to be as great as you in my own way. Your legendary work ethic was everything to me. No matter how clouded my future seemed, no matter how much even I doubted my chances, it was more about just staying the course.
And now on this side of the titles/college, just like you, I feel like a (young) veteran. I’ve found my zone, I learned what I love doing, I discovered what I am really good at. Ten, maybe even five years ago, I was probably a completely different person.
Now by no means am I done. And that is what excites me about your career, as well as mine. There are still uncharted waters to explore. Like you, I found my (potential) greatness, I found my passion, I found the field I’d be ready to dedicate my life to.
But also like you, there is still a long, long road ahead. I’m not entirely sure where my greatness lies in this next chapter of my life, just like I’m sure you feel doubt about where this stage of your career will lead after all of those injuries.
That’s the beauty of life though, isn’t it? Find what you love doing and dedicate your life to it, then let it steer your journey from there. I can’t wait to see what’s next for the both of us, Kob. And we’ll keep going in this journey, just like through my childhood to young adulthood.
Sincerely Regards Love,