Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright Doin' Work

Dear Kobe,

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books—This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff—is this: “All my life I have recognized almost at a glance those who were meant to be my friends, and they have recognized me.” I love this, the idea that friendship is a destiny that you’re aware of right away with some people, and that you can choose to accept or reject it, like Flannery O’Connor’s idea of grace. And the line can also be related to sports fandom. Maybe you don't know this, Kobe, but all our lives as fans, we recognize almost at a glance which athletes we believe we could be friends with, given the right circumstances. This recognition often informs our cheering, in fact. Like with the last Rockets team to make the playoffs, I could’ve seen myself being friends with Yao for sure, plus Scola and Battier and even their teammate and now yours, the humanitarian formerly known as Ron Artest. (One of my buddies and his wife ran into Scola and Battier at karaoke one night in Houston; they took a picture with Scola, who was wearing a giant t-shirt with Kurt Cobain’s face on it, which proves my point.) And in the current NBA, there are all sorts of dudes I believe I could be friends with: Durant (both of us nerdy UT alums), Roy Hibbert (both of us Parks and Recreation fans), Blake Griffin (I enjoy those commercials), and your teammate Luke Walton (Grateful Dead), just to name a few. And here's the thing, Kobe: though you are an interesting and super-intelligent guy, I have never once thought I could be friends with you, under any circumstances. Yes, you made that great reference to Black Swan (a movie I still haven’t seen) last season while talking about Pau. Yes, I’m impressed with your ability to give interviews in multiple languages. Yes, your turnaround fadeaways are truly a work of art. Yes, you’re one of the greatest players of all-time (and we all secretly want to believe we can relate to greatness). But you’re also kind of an asshole, Kobe. I’m not going to cite all the reasons I think you’re an asshole, except to say that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the rape trial (for which you were acquitted, after all) or the prima donna stuff I read in The Last Season. No, it has much more to do with the way, earlier in your career, whenever you got knocked down on a foul, you would sit up and cross your arms while making the most arrogant face possible, and then keep this pose even as your teammates held their hands out to pick you up. That's what I mean by asshole, Kobe. And besides your beautiful fadeaways, this is the image that I believed defined you as a basketball player.

But last week, as I marveled at your All-Star Game performance and then your subsequent 30+ point games, all played with the concussion/broken nose you sustained during that All-Star Game, I realized something: I don’t have to like your personality to admire you as a basketball player. Maybe this is obvious to you, Kobe, but it’s not obvious to me, considering the many years I’ve spent liking players for their (imagined) personalities. So I decided this week that I’m gonna just enjoy the way you play basketball, because it’s beautiful. It really is. Whether or not you’re an asshole is irrelevant; you’re an artist. In today's game against the Heat, I finally viewed your work without complicating it with my feelings about you as a human being, and your work was great: the 33 points you scored in that Hannibal Lecter mask were graceful and occasionally incredible. While I was watching, it occurred to me that judging your play based on your personality would be like judging a building based on the personality of the architect. Frank Lloyd Wright was a terrible human by many accounts, but you would never hear a conversation like this: “Man, that Fallingwater is amazing...” “Yeah, but the dude who designed it’s an asshole.” You’re the Frank Lloyd Wright of the NBA, Kobe. Your best games are stunning, calculated works of modern architecture. You're part of a long and illustrious line of assholes—painters, writers, musicians, architects, chefs—who’ve made beautiful work for the rest of us to enjoy, and that's no small thing.

For now let's not address the age-old question of whether someone has to be kind of an asshole to be truly great at something. (I don’t believe they do. There’s Jordan and Bird, yeah, but what about Magic?) What I would like to address, though, in closing, is this: To write even one great song or design one great building or have one great season, this is incredibly difficult to do. But to keep writing great songs or designing great buildings or having great seasons year after year after year, this is beyond incredibly difficult. Your third year in the NBA (and first as a starter) was the year I graduated high school. Since then I’ve gone to college, worked, gone to grad school, got married, had a kid—and you’ve been great the whole time. NBA people talk a lot about consistency, about how any guy can have one great game, but how only a select few can do it every night. But to do it every night for sixteen years and counting, occasionally with a torn wrist ligament or a concussion and a broken nose, that’s just…Wow. It's almost inhuman to perform that well for so long. You said recently that you’re “obsessed” with getting a sixth ring, and that's the perfect word: only someone who’s truly obsessed could do what you’ve done, could play the way you play every night. Only someone who is truly obsessed could set himself the goal of becoming Michael Jordan, down to the speaking mannerisms and all the championship rings, and actually come close to pulling it off. (Imagine someone saying, I’m going to be Bob Dylan, as many of us have, but then basically doing it, minus a great album or two. That’s how unlikely your career has been.) And whether any of us could be friends with you or not, basketball fans everywhere—including myself—have benefited from watching the results of that obsession. So thanks again for that. Henceforth, my defining Kobe image will not be you seated, with arms crossed, solitary and arrogant. My new image will come, instead, from today: You in the mask of a killer, beating the Heat, still obsessively creating.



P.S. In case you’re wondering, the Kobe Bryant of musicians-who-want-to-be-Bob-Dylan is a guy called The Tallest Man on Earth. He's fantastic. He’s still real young, though; it’s not like he’s made forty albums. And let me make a disclaimer: There will never be another Michael Jordan. Never. I’m just saying you’ve come as close as anyone could possibly come. And there will never be another Bob Dylan, either. Somebody might get close to one incarnation of Bob Dylan. But then they’d have about fifteen more to go.