With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.
At the annual NBA rookie photo shoot in August, Lonzo Ball managed to alienate much of his new fan base more than a month before training camp with his answer to the infernal NBA debate question: LeBron or Kobe?
The question is like a Myers-Briggs personality test, except no matter which side you land on, there will be a large contingent ready to call you an idiot. It’s the type of question that takes a man 35 miles away from his home to fight someone he’s never met.
Ball, while draped in purple and gold, chose LeBron. And suddenly I was back in high school, in 2009, reliving one of the most frustrating, illuminating times of my NBA fandom. The LeBron-Kobe debate has become something of an existential question for the modern NBA fan, but nowhere does it magnify into a personal interrogation of virtue and morality quite like in Los Angeles. That 2008-09 season, Kobe played in all 82 regular-season games for the second time in a row and logged one of the most efficient seasons of his career, culminating in his first championship that didn’t have a Shaq-sized asterisk next to it. Kobe felt more like L.A.’s archangel than he did an actual person. The only thing that managed to humanize him that year was the iconic “MVPuppets” Nike ad campaign. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence Kobe chose to use puppets to help illustrate his “Musecage” concept—although under his creative direction, it was less humanizing and more a look at what a Kobe-branded Disneyland dark ride might look like on acid.)
In L.A., battle lines were drawn thusly: Kobe was the living embodiment of hard work and dedication, a player whose ease of aesthetic is fortified by his fanatical mastery of the game’s fundamentals and a legendary gluttony for punishment; LeBron is a player spoiled by all his god-given talents, a player whose greatness was bestowed upon him, not seized for himself— all that, and he’s a fucking crybaby. Being an Angeleno with even the least bit of sympathy for LeBron in 2009 was like being a dead animal nestled in a den of wolves. And I was prey. Lonzo’s answer—my answer—is and was heretical.
But for how much longer? It’s no secret that the Lakers’ clearest path to immediate contention is convincing LeBron to sign with the team next summer. Thus, not only was Lonzo’s response an apparent appeal to his childhood, but it was also an appeal to the future. In a year, Lakers fans might find themselves rooting for LeBron, the player many had long held as Kobe’s antithesis.
How Kobe’s influence is both propagated and minimized over the next few seasons will be an interesting case study in how legacies evolve in the modern age. Throughout his career, Kobe made it clear whose career path he was chasing; he invited comparisons to Michael Jordan. He was among a procession of players who would trace MJ’s arc, and by the end of his career, he’d easily come closest. He incubated in Jordan’s final seasons, blossomed in the NBA’s post-Bulls transition, and became revered in an age when big men had begun their metamorphosis into a more skilled, diverse breed. But his decline and the Lakers’ ever-growing irrelevance coincided with a new revolution, one whose style proved contradictory to Kobe’s soloistic inclinations.
The league that Jordan dismantled and the one he left behind weren’t too dissimilar, allowing for his plagiarists to inherit the earth. The league that Kobe dominated and the one he left behind are two entirely different landscapes. Jordan had his apostles. Kobe, for much of his final days, was frequently referred to as the last of a dying breed.
Maybe they were right about that. We watched a man spend two decades meticulously crafting the details of his legacy. But like art, the second that legacy leaves the creator and is passed down to the world, how it warps over time is out of his control.
Mitchell Chan knew he could dribble, which was enough for him. The Costa Mesa–based massage therapist has been running marathons since 2001—the same year his Lakers won their second consecutive NBA title on the backs of Shaq and Kobe—but only a few years back did he think to combine two of his loves in a meaningful way.
Chan started taking a basketball with him on walks, getting a feel for the force and rhythm necessary to dribble a ball for any extended length, let alone 26.2 miles. He practiced once, in a half-marathon, and then went for broke at an Arizona marathon in 2014, pounding the ball his entire way through. Chan’s right wrist was effectively immobilized for the following week; he knew how to dribble, but didn’t have much control with his off-hand. But he kept at it, growing more and more enamored with the additional challenge he’d created within the already-grueling framework of a marathon—the game within the game. To raise his spirits, and to make something of a show out of his experience, he also put his burgeoning collection of basketball apparel to use, donning a new jersey for each of his dribbling marathons.
Chan has raced in more than six marathons with a ball in his hands over the past three years. On four different occasions, in four different jerseys, he has represented Kobe Bryant’s myriad iterations: the no. 8 of his youth, the no. 10 of Team USA, and the no. 24 in both purple and gold and All-Star red. Chan told me his favorite Kobe moment, which, incidentally, was Bryant’s last: “Scoring 60 points was just unbelievable,” he said. “Plus, he also was able to do it in front of his daughters [who had] never seen him do that in person before. That was a great moment.”
2 days after the OC Marathon my legs are still tight as hell, but my wrist are completely fine, not sore at all. pic.twitter.com/wJsVusrnh4— Mitch (@MarathonMitch) May 3, 2016
Chan, now in his 40s, moved to Los Angeles from Hong Kong when he was 12 and assimilated the way so many immigrants in the city do: He followed the purple and gold, from Magic to Nick the Quick to Kobe. What better team to root for?
Last year, 18 days after Bryant’s farewell to the league, Chan ran in his Lakers no. 24 jersey at the Orange County Marathon as a tribute to the performance. By then, Chan was a veteran of his painful balancing act. His left hand was much improved; he deftly switched hands over the course of those 26.2 miles. His time (four hours and 14 minutes) is nowhere close to the Guinness world record for a marathon run while dribbling (three hours and 25 seconds, set earlier this year in Germany), but that was never the point.
Around the time Chan ran his first marathon, Kobe, who was only about 22 at the time, began experiencing severe knee tendinitis. It was a logical progression from the knee pain stemming from the Osgood-Schlatter disease that Bryant endured through his teenage years. What came of his deterministic youth was a 20-year NBA career of torn cartilage, torn muscles, sprained ankles, broken fingers, ruptured tendons, and 33,643 career points.
Marathons are about pain management, and largely, so was Kobe’s career. At the least, the documentation of Bryant’s physical pain offered a framework to which ordinary people could relate to his exhaustive struggle for greatness. Under the cloak of the Black Mamba, Chan in the span of four races has run just under 105 miles, almost one mile for every regular-season game Bryant had missed prior to a premature 2013-14 return from his Achilles injury—prior to the abrupt, two-year swan song of his career. It’s hard to think of a better way to pay tribute to Kobe than by serving as a metaphor for a metaphor.
As a child growing up in Italy, Bryant was forced to read the Iliad in a dead language. It’s maybe the most telling fact about the man, and the best way to understand Kobe as both a player and a public figure. Homer’s classic epic is a war story; it’s a glorified examination of how we choose to define ourselves and shape our identity. For someone as obsessed with his legacy as Kobe was for his entire career, the Iliad surely rubbed off on him as an impressionable preteen. “The thing I gravitated to was the difference between Achilles and Hector, the different philosophies that they both embody, the contrasting beliefs,” Bryant told The Ringer’s Micah Peters last year. “Who did I see myself more in? And even at that early age, I would say, ‘OK, Achilles is more interesting.’ I think as a kid, Achilles is always more interesting because he’s more aggressive.”
But with some distance from Kobe’s NBA career, and some context as far as what he plans on building in the next stage of his life, the essential messages contained within the Iliad seem secondary to the methods in which they’ve been conveyed over time. Bryant has fancied himself a storyteller in his time away from the court, but his greatest feats of mythologizing in this stage of his life could never touch the way he framed and continually remastered his basketball career. Bryant’s absurd scoring outputs are worthy of being treated as folklore, to the point of displacing his faults from public consciousness. The shots he made would invariably be remembered over the ones he missed, so long as he made enough—and for most people, he did.
I didn’t watch Kobe’s final game live on April 13, 2016. My attention was squarely on the Warriors, who were on the verge of completing the greatest regular season in NBA history with their 73rd win. On that night, there was a choice to be made: witness history retracing its steps or witness the outlining of the future. I’d like to say I’d make that same choice 10 times out of 10, but I know that isn’t true. There has been plenty of debate over whether he was the best NBA star of my generation, but it seems undeniable to me that Kobe was the most important. I think about how my life would be different if I had the compulsion to voice that opinion among the gospel of Kobe’s zealots—if I were one of them.
It’s fascinating how seeds in our youth sprout and root over time. Fandom is a product of circumstance before it becomes an aspect of identity. I think about the missed connections between me and the Lakers all the time. If my mom, dad, and brother had moved to America any other year, I’d be a Lakers fan. But they moved in 1989, the same year Vlade Divac, the Lakers’ first-round draft selection, made his own long, strange trek to California from the former Yugoslavia. My brother, who was 6 at the time, didn’t know a word of English, but worked hard to assimilate the way immigrants in L.A. do: by obsessively tracking Lakers broadcasts. He’d found a sort of kinship in Divac, whose story reflected his own.
I was born three days before Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991; my favorite Lakers memory of all time was created during the team’s most average years: Eddie Jones’s finger roll in transition, jumping from damn near 20 feet away. Jones was my first favorite athlete. These tenuous bonds that my brother and I had to the Lakers set the stage for what’d happen next. In 1996, the Lakers traded Divac for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant. With the Lakers acquiring their shiny new prep-to-pro phenom, Jones became a sitting duck, biding time before an inevitable departure. Ironically, the trade that would spawn millions of Lakers fans around the world also dislodged us from the team. My brother would latch onto Divac’s Sacramento Kings and become a devout follower of Rick Adelman; I wandered and still do. Despite the two of us being star-crossed, in a way, Kobe had a hand in sculpting my identity as a basketball fan all the same.
The Lakers are headed toward an inflection point. Though they just hired Kobe’s former longtime agent to run their team, the team itself is officially pivoting away from Kobe’s on-court influence for the first time in nearly two decades, whether that peaks with LeBron’s arrival or the emergence of Lonzo’s infectious style of play. Lonzo’s answer in the LeBron-Kobe debate suggests a generational lapse; months before the draft, in a brief conversation with Ball, Kobe asked if the young point guard could post up. Ball told Kobe he could, but based on how the exchange was depicted by Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, Kobe’s vision of the game didn’t correlate with Lonzo’s. Not everyone sees post footwork as the Gaia of basketball greatness.
We’ll soon reach the point when Kobe’s career downturn will coincide with the most impressionable years of fandom in our next generation of stars. Of the 12 players on Team USA’s 2017 U19 men’s junior national team, only one listed Kobe as his favorite player of all time. In October, 54 players from around the country will attend Team USA’s U16 minicamp camp in Colorado Springs, a group that includes Terrell Suggs’s second cousin; Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s son; a five-star recruit named Anfernee; and two different Zions. Of the 35 invitees that had a favorite player of all time listed in their team bio, seven chose Kobe. A generation ago, one would have expected at least double that number.
But in the present, Kobe is still the standard-bearer in approach, if not style. Last season’s triple-double boom almost felt like a tribute to Kobe—taking the rugged individualism that he embodied and weaponizing it against the ultimate Warriors superteam. It didn’t work, but like Kobe’s best performances, it was enough to briefly break the parameters of the game. More players in the league wear Kobe’s shoe than any other player brand on the market. When a player’s legacy transforms into a broad slate of virtues, it’s easier to live in them than live up to them.
Even the granular qualities of his game are spread across the league’s constellation of stars. The aura of control in the midrange lives on in Kawhi Leonard; the footwork in DeMar DeRozan. Jimmy Butler has taken up the “asshole” role in team leadership. Russell Westbrook embodies Kobe’s deepest inner-motivations and most impressive physical quirk: He is driven by rage on the court, and every injury he sustains only seems to make him better. Devin Booker recreated the Kobe experience last season by scoring 70 force-fed points against the Celtics. And Kyrie Irving has distilled it all into a near-perfect replica of the Kobe Bryant arc—everything from spouting out obtuse notions of greatness to breaking from the league’s most dominant player in an effort to self-actualize his potential.
We’re nearing 18 months since Kobe last stepped onto an NBA court. On December 18, the Lakers will retire both of his jersey numbers—no. 8 and no. 24. He will be the first player in NBA history to have multiple numbers retired by the same team, which all but cements his standing as the greatest Laker of all time within the popular consensus. “Once again, Lakers fans will celebrate our hero,” owner Jeanie Buss said during the announcement. “And once again, our foes will envy the legendary Kobe Bryant.” It will take place at halftime of a game against the Golden State Warriors, conveniently enough. As has always been the case, Bryant will stand behind a backdrop of greatness.
For however long the ceremony lasts, Lakers fans will once again be witness to history retracing its steps. It’ll feel more familiar than the team on the floor once the third quarter commences.