Vino Finale

Millions of ordinary people with their opinions are adding to the legend of Kobe Bryant like he’s this unwritten chapter of greatness. His book is closing and we’re on the final page. He’s been a brilliantly scripted piece of music that even Beethoven wouldn’t be able to muster the courage to finish. A transcendent talent that Phil Jackson didn’t want to coast with to the land of infinite distinction. He’s a legendary, old-school menace whose body barely let his him ride it to the finish.

To me, there hasn’t been a player in my lifetime as special as Kobe Bryant. It’s more than the 5 championship rings, more than the pile of regular season accolades, NBA records, or the insanity of scoring 33,500+ points in this league. To me, what separates Kobe Bryant into a class of his own is his unbelievable level of unmovable confidence he has in his own abilities. It’s been captivating to watch a performer with a level of his self-confidence operate around the dimensions of the basketball court for the last 20 seasons.

Holding the basketball on an elbow with that unhinged look in his eyes, mesmerizing every sold-out arena by using a series of signature textbook brushstrokes that he visualizes as unguardable moves. Kobe was an artist, and he knew it. Each stupefying turnaround he took represented a note he was singing. Each game winning shot he took was preceded with that crazed expression he’d feature for crowds before he’d stab them. Every forced shot he attempted was a way for the abstract artist to illustrate his intentions of his ludicrous basketball illusion.

Kobe was a killer, an assassin at a mad level we hadn’t seen since Michael, and he knew it. He drew fans in for years upon years with a spellbind made from his glamour, cockiness, and a mountain of coolness that was envied by everybody else. He knew that he was more than a professional basketball player. Kobe knew he was an entertainer. A performer. Each step he took on his home team’s historic floor was with purpose. Kobe saw himself as more than a basketball player, more than just a human being. In his mind and behind the eyes of millions of his followers, he became a virtuoso. A basketball savant. A professional performer that controlled the position of spectators with a single draw of his brush.

“I’ve shot too much from the time I was 8 years old. But ‘too much’ is a matter of perspective. Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions. Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much. I find it very interesting. Going back to Mozart, he responded to critics by saying there was neither too many notes or too few. There was as many as necessary.” — Kobe Bryant

Kobe’s thought process has always been different. Not just because he’ll hoist shots at the basket while being guarded by 3 or 4 defenders, and get snarky with teammates that protest, but because of the way that his brain ticks. Kobe Bryant’s perspective is just different. In his documentary, Muse, he shares what it’s like to look down at the scar on his achilles — “When I take off my shoe and I look down at my scar, I see beauty in it. I see all the hard work, all the sacrifices. I see the journey that it took to get back to this point of being healthy. And I see beauty in that struggle. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

There must be some sort of apparatus inside of Kobe Bryant that was surgically implanted at birth that casted him an impossible confidence. It has allowed him to be fearless from the time he could walk. He’s unbreakable. You can’t coach somebody to the level of determination that this dude has because it’s unhealthy. The amount of confidence and toughness that Kobe had throughout his career are the reasons that I respected him the most.

Throughout the long career of Kobe Bryant there have been many, many stories about how his work ethic, toughness, and character. However, there are two particular stories that stick out to me that I’ll always remember. They’re simply my favorite.

The Lakers trainer, Gary Vitti, explained an instance where Kobe returned from viewing one of the Saw movies and explained to him a scene in the film where a victim had a device locked around his neck with nails pointing at his head. A video appears and explains the device can only be removed with a key that’s been surgically placed behind the victim’s right eye. The only way the key can be retrieved is with a scalpel. The video tells the victim he’ll have one minute to unlock the device before it encloses on his head and kills him. Kobe says to Gary Vitti, “I think I could get that key.”

Gary Vitti has now been with the Lakers for 30 years as the team’s athletic trainer. However, reminiscing on the time Kobe openly admitted that he could survive a real life Saw encounter wasn’t even the most memorable story from the Mamba/Vitti archives. It came on the same night he tore his achilles.

While discussing the injury, Kobe — who was begging to stay in the game — says to Vitti, “Maybe I can just run on my heel.” Time goes by and Vitti compromises to let Kobe shoot his free throws before he comes out of the game. Kobe then attempts to pull his torn achilles up his leg like it was a sock before he hobbles to the free throw line under his own power. As planned, Kobe swishes both free throws under the pain of a torn achilles, and limps to the locker room after the next whistle without breaking the concentration he’d shown since the injury.

In the locker room, Kobe is yelling and throwing things around violently. Rage is being released that was trapped inside the declining superstar’s mind. Thoughts are racing around the room about the future of Kobe Bryant, and if he’d ever return to basketball. But it’s what happened next that shocked Vitti. “I see for the first time an element of doubt in Kobe’s eyes,” Vitti explained. “It didn’t last long.” After taking a few minutes to collect his thoughts, Kobe asks Vitti in a relaxed tone, “What do I have to do to get back?”

“All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I’ve done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen? Makes no damn sense. Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at 35? How in the world am I supposed to do that?? I have NO CLUE. Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing? Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me. Then again maybe not.” — Kobe Bryant

My other favorite Kobe Bryant story is what happened in the 2012 All-Star Game.

In 2012 Kobe Bryant was selected for his 14th All-Star game in 16 seasons. Coming into the game he was leading the league in scoring and had an opportunity to break Michael Jordan’s all-time record for career All-Star Game points. The All-Star Game before, he tied the record by winning his fourth All-Star game MVP award while notching 37 points and 14 rebounds. And of course, the visions of Kobe winning back-to-back Finals MVP’s are still relatively close in the rearview mirror. It’s safe to say that he was feeling dominant coming into the game.

While the All-Star game was in the 3rd quarter, Kobe Bryant spun by Dwyane Wade and drove to the basket. As Kobe was beginning to rise up for his reverse layup, Wade fouled Bryant hard. He didn’t just foul Bryant. In my opinion it looked intentional and he was called for a flagrant. A flagrant foul in the All-Star Game? Bizarre.

Kobe was eventually ruled to have a concussion and a broken nose. However, before leaving the arena to go to the hospital, Kobe needed to see Dwyane Wade. He needed to see him out of his own pride.

Tim Grover says it best in his book Relentless, “Kobe wanted to see him face-to-face before he’d go to the hospital. It wasn’t about vengeance or retaliation or settling the score. It was about the law and order of the jungle, two animals instinctively facing off, the lion king getting up on that rock so the rest of the jungle could see who was in charge. One direct, silent look that says, ‘I still own this, motherfucker.”

Sometimes I’m curious what Kobe Bryant does in his spare time. Does he just sit in his basement with a dimly lit candle listening to Moonlight Sonata while spinning a basketball in his hands? I honestly could see him lying there each minute of the night, dreaming about what he’s going to conquer next with the leather rolling on his fingertips. Maybe he sits at his piano gently playing each key while visualizing his greatest accomplishments, or the accomplishments that have yet to come. The man has showed the world he has sacrificed his life to basketball with his famous, “friends come and go, but banners hang forever”. Does the man actually value the greatness of his own individual success over the appreciation he has for human correlation? Is basketball really…life… for Kobe Bryant?

There are legends of him grunting and sweating in the gym alone for hours upon hours, without a ball, practicing his shooting, cutting, and sharpening of his footwork. You hear the story of Nike shaving only a few millimeters off of his shoes in order to gain a hundredth of a second better reaction time for the Finals. He’d steal teammates after practice and force them to play him 1 on 1 to 100, using them as his guinea pigs. And of course, the famous Godfather story of them all, when Kobe was in Las Vegas for the team USA camp. All legends, but everybody believes them because that’s what the legacy of Kobe Bryant is made of — stories that enhance his legend. Nobody has questioned the stories that litter the Internet surrounding Kobe’s work ethic and drive. He’s had teammates and coaches vouch that he’s genuinely crazier than anybody who’s ever attempted to play this game. For Kobe, basketball is the only thing he’s ever done. It’s the only thing he’s ever been. Kobe Bryant is basketball.

Throughout Kobe’s entire life he has stressed an emphasis to details. Perfection. Kobe’s drive and work ethic is comparable to Noah’s when he built the arc, or even the Wright brothers when they became the first to fly. It’s admirable to anybody who has followed Kobe throughout his career and inspiring to those who are just learning.

Kobe grew into a lab secret that nobody has been able to crack. He has been an Italian basketball science experiment that was sculpted by the hands of great ones such as Michelangelo and Sandro Botticelli. Kobe became “Vino”, or of something that is inferior quality.

The ironic thing about Kobe’s unmatchable self-assurance is that it has always been his greatest weakness. He has too much belief in himself, to the point of where it’s humorous. Kobe refuses to be stopped by anything except for an image of himself. This season has been Hell for Kobe Bryant — losing, career low statistics, an ultimate decline — but it doesn’t matter because he’s going out the way that he wants to. He’s been firing away shots in volumes the way he’s been accustomed to doing. He didn’t come off of the bench, or come out of the basketball bullpen with 5 minutes left in the game. Kobe finished his career out his way. It was going to be ugly, but since that was the case, Kobe made it as ugly as he possibly could because that’s better than changing who he is.

Kobe is the final alpha dog of his time. Much like the way his book is closing so is an era in the NBA. Once Kobe’s final act is finished, the league won’t ever be the same. The memories that Kobe leaves behind are unfadeable. Kobe Bryant is not just the final alpha dog, but he is the final OG. The final star from my childhood. Kobe Bryant, the maestro, won’t ever be repeated as long as basketballs are being bounced. One of the greatest players of all-time — the greatest from my lifetime — is going from reality to just another memory.

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