The gritted teeth. The peaked eyebrows. The scrunched face.
The look has been the logo for Kobe Bryant at his best over the past few years.
But here was Bryant, sitting near the east foul line at Staples Center, his knees near his chest and both of his arms attempting to stabilize his limp left leg, and the look conveyed only horror.
Two nights earlier, Bryant turned in a heroic performance -- a 47-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist, 4-block, 3-steal gem in a much-needed win at the Rose Garden, a place that had so tormented him in years past. It was the type of game that made you believe that nothing could stop him from lifting the tired and tattered Los Angeles Lakers into the postseason.
But here he was, one of the game’s last few giants, crumpled into a heap.
After decades of living through newspaper box scores and first-hand accounts, the Information Age has created new ways for understanding and interpreting the game. Advanced statistics have become not only part of the conversation in recent years but an integral piece in any argument. “Efficiency” is a buzz word that permeates through locker rooms and press rooms and at home. It’s not unlikely to hear about “usage rate” or “effective field goal percentage” during a local or national broadcast.
All of it has conspired to create a more educated fan, and, in turn, a new ideal for a superstar basketball player. It’s not so much about heroic feats as much as it as about cold, hard reality.
The guy who jacks up all types of shots, from every angle, against every defense has given way to the guy who can do a little bit of everything and do it efficiently.
The last-second dagger may have gone in, but should it have been taken in the first place? The discussion of Hero Ball has effectively killed our basketball heroes.
Except for a select few, most notably Bryant.
This emphasis on process over raw production regardless of the means most undercuts a stone-cold gunner like Bryant, who, despite a 17-year career that has been nothing short of prolific, has a tendency to take the reins and refuse to give them up, regardless of the obstacles thrown in his path.
But the more the game of basketball becomes grounded in statistical truth, the greater the myth of Kobe Bryant seems to grow. Because while his historic scoring ability has fueled his rise, it’s the defiance of a TV anti-hero that has defined his 17-year career.
I can’t skip college? Watch me.
I can’t succeed without Shaq? Watch me.
I can’t play with a gnarled finger? Watch me.
I can’t win as many rings as Jordan? Watch me.
Even as his age has crept past 30, his brashness, that impenetrability of a teenager, never waned.
So it was no surprise that after a 2011-12 season that saw his attempts rise and his shooting percentage dip, Bryant again defied the odds this year, turning in some of his best performances as the unbridled hope of a Lakers NBA Finals run quickly disintegrated into a daily fight to save face. The means had indeed changed. A healthier Bryant was taking three fewer shots per game, and more and better shots at the rim while scaling back the midrange jumper a bit. He also vacillated roles at times to Stucco over the Lakers’ injury woes, sometimes even eschewing his tunnel vision for the rim to become more of a facilitator, at one point racking up double-digit assists and near-triple-doubles in clumps.
But it wasn’t enough just to do it. In the midst of his facilitating binge, Bryant made sure to underline the ease with which he could do it. He would go into games with the clear mission to get others involved, drop 10 assists or so, and afterward act like it was no big thing, at one point even evoking Neo from “The Matrix.”
By any means necessary, Kobe would often say.
At some point during this season, as the injuries began to mount and the losses dragged the Lakers’ playoff chances deeper and deeper into a hole, Bryant became more myth than man, and the charming cockiness he displayed in postgame scrums -- cracking jokes despite dire situations and swearing openly into live mics, always with a sly grin -- only added to the persona. Slap a 10-gallon hat on him and you’d think the stubble-faced Bryant was a character conjured up by Elmore Leonard.
LeBron James has been superhuman this season. But while his physique is Herculean, The Decision and the emotional toll it clearly took on James has made him seem so mortal, even as he defies gravity. He is also very much a star of now, the model of all-around brilliance and efficiency the game now craves. Bryant, too, has endured his share of personal and professional obstacles, but his foibles only further emphasis the old ideal of a superstar athlete -- the cocky, manly gunner with the ice in his veins and a fear of no one.
Which is why it was more confusing than heartbreaking to watch Bryant limp on his tattered left leg to the locker room Friday night, even making a portion of the walk from one end of the court to the other without any help. Leg injuries have felled several of the league’s brightest stars in the past year. But Bryant was supposed to be impervious to such things. In nearly two decades with the Lakers, Bryant has missed no more than 17 regular-season games in a single season, playing with face masks and cartoon-sized gauze wraps along the way.
But there he was, as always, after the game: in front of his locker being peppered with questions from the media. Only this time it came with crutches underneath his arms and a glossy coating around his eyes as he dammed his emotions.
As ESPN's Chris Palmer noted: "Kobe with tears in his eyes. Never seen him so...human."
Bryant will likely rehab and make a comeback. After the game, a Lakers win over the playoff-bound Golden State Warriors, he told reporters that the thought of pundits questioning his ability to do so already pissed him off.
And, surely, such a recovery will be hailed as heroic.
But already 34 and 232 days and facing perhaps a year-long comeback, it’s possible that, at least in spirit, the NBA lost its last hero of Hero Ball on this Friday night.