The Mamba Manifesto

Austin Issacsohn_online

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Just when I thought I had cried enough with finals coming up.

I read the poem, and I couldn’t handle it. Kobe, the one show my parents would let me stay up late to watch as a kid. Kobe, the greatest spectacle in the entertainment capital of the world. Kobe, the NBA’s greatest villain since the Chicago shooting guard he’ll be endlessly compared with. Kobe, leaving the game a little too late, yet somehow too soon.

I had to steer my thoughts other directions. I couldn’t think about anything to do with my superhero for a while. I started watching Nick Young highlights. I know, difficult to imagine right? But they exist, I swear. Nine and a half minutes of me screaming into my computer: “Nick, why the hell are you shooting that — Nice shot, Swaggy!” But then YouTube got me with the related videos.

“Kobe Bryant Achilles Tear”

I had to watch. Something compelled me to click, watch it just for a second. I forced myself to live through the pain all over again. Kobe will officially retire in April, but his career ended that night against the Warriors. To see the Black Mamba sitting calmly on the hardwood, holding his foot and shaking his head with a sullen and undeniable knowledge of what had just happened, made me feel a certain way. Heartbroken is close. Even mournful isn’t far off. To be honest, I’m still searching for the word to describe how I, and the rest of the formerly proud Laker Nation, felt when we saw the face of the franchise wounded beyond repair. But finding the word requires me to relive the moment, so I doubt I ever will. All I have left is memories of my fallen hero.

Recency bias is a real son of a bitch. We’re never inclined to believe that the best is behind us. We say ridiculous things such as “LeBron would have been better than Magic had he played in the 1980s,” but really, we don’t know. Magic was taller, a better shooter and assuredly a superior passer.

But we still say it. We make those ridiculous claims because we don’t want to believe that Magic, probably the second best player on his championship teams, would run circles around LeBron James — who’s objectively speaking the current best player on Earth. The best very well may have already happened, and we’re all stuck watching the B-roll. People say players such as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry or even King James are better than Kobe ever was. When I hear that, I immediately know that the person I’m talking to has been watching basketball since maybe 2012.

You call me when Durant averages more than 35 points for an entire season as the only legitimate scoring threat on his team.

You call me when Curry scores 81 in a close game, with his team needing every last point to win.

You call me when LeBron wears five championship rings for the same franchise that he stayed loyal to throughout his entire career (and based on his current 2-4 Finals record, that could take another 9 tries).

The nerve of some people, man. Such disrespect. But this is not a piece defending the myth that is Kobe Bean Bryant: Trust me, there’s not enough room in this newspaper for a piece that long. This is a plea to the Black Mamba. A long-winded, overly dramatic supplication to my favorite sportsperson of all time — Kobe, please don’t go.

I don’t want to imagine an NBA without Kobe. I don’t want to turn on the TV in May and not see the Mamba and his underbite vandalize teams for 45 a night. I want to keep watching his trash talk, his swagger and his silky smooth turnaround for the rest of my life. But that’s unrealistic. Father Time is undefeated, and he has pulled a crossover on Bryant from which I’m not sure he’ll ever recover. So, this is a dual plea — Kobe, please get out while you can.

Kobe is the black sheep in an otherwise fast offense, an iso-ball black hole who eats up shot clock and play sets — not to mention salary. The Lakers are a young team these days, with Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell leading Los Angeles into a future of hopeful uncertainty, in which Kobe simply has no spot. But when he pulls up from four feet behind the three-point line, launches a dagger that hits nothing but net, and casually runs back down court like that wasn’t the absolute rawest shit to ever unfold, there’s a secret part of me that basks in the nostalgia of when Kobe was good enough to carry a championship-level team. I don’t ever want to let that go. But we both have to.

Kobe, you’ve donned the purple and gold for 20 years now. Your playing career is older than the proud fan writing this piece. You’ve proven beyond question that you’re a contender for the greatest player of all time, and you’ll have a band of smart people to argue your position at the top forever. You’ve done everything you can do on a basketball court other than quit, and when you hang them up at the end of the year, I’ll be more than happy with your decision. Then again, if you want to keep playing into your 40s, I would love that too.

Back to the video of Bryant tearing his Achilles. With his left leg torn to shreds, his team losing, and his season slipped away, Kobe had the option to shoot the two free throws he had earned for the foul, or have someone else do it. My man stood up, swished both shots and walked off the court unassisted. And he took my heart with him.

Austin Isaacsohn covers field hockey. Contact him at [email protected].