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The Kobe Bryant perception problem

(Photo by Paul Moseley/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Kobe Bryant has become such an easy target.

Once an unquestioned superstar capable of peeling any arrow shot his way right from his turned back, Bryant’s very real basketball mortality has been on full display as his legendary career writes its final chapter. An alpha dog that found success doing things only the way he believed they should be done, Bryant was previously vulnerable to nothing while going through everything as the NBA’s Terminator. Setting a standard for greatness and an expectation of superhero performance, there is simply no way the current 37-year-old version could stack up to his former self.

So what are we expecting?

When Bryant plays a season-high 36 minutes and scores 17 points, grabs eight rebounds and dishes out nine assists as a 20-year veteran coming off of three consecutive serious injuries, that’s more than just a pretty good evening. We’d be talking about the near triple-double miss for just about any other player, but the conversation was largely silent for Kobe. You can look at the box score, see 6-of-19 from the field and wonder how Bryant could allow for such inefficiency, or you could look at it as Kobe operating alongside a bunch of kids who lean on him to a fault while learning how to play proper NBA basketball. Bryant was sniffing a triple-double and knew he was going to leave it all out on the floor in order to get a much-needed win, and who knows how many more performances we’re going to get like these from No. 24? Resting him doesn’t provide some magical guarantee that he won’t be susceptible to injury. You don’t have to be a Los Angeles Lakers fan to appreciate Bryant’s place in the game, and in a world that constantly wants to project the future, The Black Mamba is very much living in the moment.

After the contest, the headlines were predictably quick to focus on the negative. Instead of highlighting Bryant having his best performance of the year in what is likely the last chance we’ll get to see him, it was instead all about how Kobe would sit out Monday’s contest vs. the Phoenix Suns. Lucky to have moments—let alone stretches—where No. 24 looks like No. 8, we’re not going to get another vintage Bryant game before he walks away for good. The scoring outbursts where Kobe creates instant offense by weaving and bobbing through a crowded field of defenders? They’re gone. This is a different Bryant than the one that still lives so vividly in our memories, and perhaps that’s why the reality presents such a conflicting image.

We’re seeing a similar process with another sports giant in Peyton Manning’s decline with the Denver Broncos. When a blueprint that’s been so successful finally breeds failure, it’s impossible to press restart on a machine that’s been programmed to operate a certain way for so long.

Kobe Bryant has always elicited unbelievable emotion, but never before has it been so uniform in its stance. Is it because Bryant, on the downfall, is now easier to reach? After all, it is considerably more comfortable to deride others for those who remain uncomfortable with what stares back at them in the mirror. Maybe it’s because Kobe has crushed so many broken dreams that his new nightmare is a critic’s fantasyland. Whatever the reason may be for so many, that Kobe line of thinking is a flawed approach to digesting the finality of an NBA icon. We always say to value the process—not the results alone—and both aging and failure are big parts of what we all go through.

As Kobe is learning and all of us eventually do, Father Time remains undefeated. Rather than comparing Bryant to a younger version of himself that no longer exists, Kobe needs to be viewed through the appropriate lens. Nobody can expect a guy who has dominated the league for nearly two decades to come out in his 20th year and control things like he once did. The fact that Kobe’s still carrying the load currently strapped to his back goes beyond comprehension, and when we get rare flashes of Bryant’s former brilliance, those moments should be enjoyed and savored instead of relentlessly dissected.

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