The greats do grow old, and Kobe Bryant needs to understand that fact. To tell him straight: You ain’t the Kobe you used to be, man.
Now, no athlete wants to hear that his best days are part of yesteryear, and the greats have a harder time listening to such talk than men whose talent doesn’t register on the Richter scale.
Kobe isn’t listening at all. He dismissed out of hand an ESPN.com ranking that had him at No. 40 among the best players in the NBA. Kobe at 40 is almost like thinking the sun goes ’round the moon. You can hardly believe it, and you can’t expect someone like Kobe to.
He didn’t either.
“I’ve known for a long time that they’re a bunch of idiots,” he reportedly said of ESPN and its NBA rankings.
So the great debate begins: Has Kobe slipped as far as ESPN says he has?
You don’t have to look too far into the past to find Kobe’s name at No. 1 on the list. He was the heir to Michael Jordan. Kobe was the star whose face once stood for the NBA, just as Michael’s face had done before hubris kept him in the game longer than he should have been.
Stars don't tend to ride off into the sunset without some help. They always see one more great season, one last run to a championship. Michael saw it; Shaquille O’Neal did, too.
What they saw, though, was a mirage. Their minds were playing tricks on them, trying to convince them one last run was there. All they needed to do was work harder, push themselves in ways they never had before. They’d be fine if they did.
But Kobe will never be what he once was. He’s old in sports years, speeding past his middle-30s and nearing 40 at warp speed. His greatness is seen in glimpses, if it is seen at all.
To rank players is no science. Both statistics and the eye test can be deceiving, and when a player is coming off an injury – and the monomaniacal Kobe is – the eye test tells you more than his numbers.
For injury robs an old athlete of what made him great. He loses that lateral quickness; his hops aren’t what they used to be; his jumper tends to miss more than it once did; and his mental sharpness, his day-to-day, I’m-not-gonna-lose mentality, can’t be relied on as often as it once was.
That’s where Kobe is now, whether he wants to admit as much. He can live in a Wonderland if he wants, but the struggles of the L.A. Lakers do more than hint that “Showtime” can’t ride him to glory anymore.
Before month’s end, the 36-year-old Kobe Bryant will get a chance to prove ESPN.com and other critics wrong. He’ll do so on the court – if he still can – and not in someone’s polls.
Right now, he can try to ignore what others see in him and what they say about him. He can prove on the floor that he’s still the Kobe Bryant who had been the star of stars in a league of stars.
Kobe will fail. He will have his moments, but he’ll never have those sustained moments that once defined his greatness. He’s no longer great; he’s more like Dwyane Wade than he is LeBron James. When did we ever think of Kobe in the same cluster of players as Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala?
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(Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)