Kobe Bryant probably woke up being an asshole this morning, ahead of the final game in one of the greatest professional basketball careers in history. He'll likely go to sleep tonight the same way. And whenever he first cracks the reigns at Kobe Inc., his business that may or may not be a production company, it's a safe bet that he'll continue to be an asshole then, too.
This has not been spoken about in months, because that's not how retirements are done. Ever since Kobe penned his sonnet to an orange leather orb back in November, every discussion of this NBA generation's saltiest player now veers into saccharine. The question is why everyone now works so hard to pour on the sugar.
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The fact remains that Bryant was once party to a rape investigation that, irrespective of outcome, remains too significant to ever blot out. The one certainty of that night in Colorado is that he cheated on his wife. His defense for that amounted to selling out Shaquille O'Neal for doing it first - which, if DeAngelo Russell and Nick Young have demonstrated anything, is far more damning in NBA circles than adultery - before purchasing a four million dollar ring as an apology to his wife. His number of quality friendships is in short supply because, by Bryant's own admission, he's too self-involved to support them.
He'd never cop to being a shitty teammate but that's been a matter of fact at various points in his career, from savaging Mitch Kupchak and Andrew Bynum to an audience of random pedestrians to denying Smush Parkers' right to converse with him to Chucky Atkins calling him out for being the absolute worst, the sort of insubordination that even lightning rods like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Yasiel Puig haven't encountered. The dissolution of his relationship with Shaq was the most high-profile teammate divorce this century, which was bad enough even before Phil Jackson spent a healthy part of a book detailing why it was overwhelmingly Kobe's fault.
In the broader sense, he spent two decades comporting himself like Jordan on power-save mode, leering and sneering and glowering at the sort of innocuousness that only the most dedicated misanthrope would bother twisting into slights. Nearly every reporter who spent significant time in Bryant's orbit has a story about being chewed out or, at worst, frozen out for petty offenses. So do countless opponents.
Sometimes, he was pilloried for this behavior; other times, he was fetishized because of it. Bryant, ever self-aware, often manipulated that tension to his advantage: The tried-and-true Kobe ad campaign model usually involves an acknowledgement of how much he's hated, before funneling it back into why that makes him great. Kobe Bryant, better than anyone, understands how much of an asshole he is and is mostly alright with it.
Which isn't to argue that anyone is required to pivot their retirement coverage in that direction. It's possible to remain agnostic about Kobe Bryant, the human being, and wax poetic about every incredible basketball achievement, which are legion. The problem is that so many insist on drifting wider, and in so doing are brushing aside the narrative that they helped construct. Rather, the past five months have seen copious amounts of copy, airtime and bandwidth marshaled in service of excavating Kobe's humanity. This week's media coverage has brought us nuggets like the emergence of his humane side, the gradual thawing of his icy heart, behind-the-scenes looks at his caring nature and last-gasp anecdotes praising his grit. They amount to marginally cracked windows that Bryant first began to slide open at his retirement announcement.
Some of this owes itself to a natural inclination to hope for something more beneath a calloused veneer: Nobody wants to dislike the transcendent athletes they have invested so much time observing and covering, even when they can recognize how fundamental ego and selfishness informs those players' greatness. But without context to counterbalance it, latching onto every vulnerable moment confirms the absolute worst media stereotype of pandering to athletes who volunteer even the smallest crumbs of authenticity.
Perhaps Bryant's edge truly is gone for good now. But given that he's volunteered no history of sustained honesty besides who he follows on Twitter, why does anyone take him at his word? What if he's simply trying to fool everyone ahead of a post-playing career that depends on him finally embracing becoming personable and relatable?
It's an awkward – if not outright uncomfortable – reality to consider that, even at the end, Kobe Bryant is manipulating his audience. But in Kobe's case, it's much more likely to be accurate than capitulating to the idea that he was a sweetheart all along. At the very least, it should give anyone pause about working so hard to lionize his character as well as his on-court skill.
Now that he's finally retired, there's no urgent reason to remember all the ways in which Kobe Bryant is an asshole. There's just even less of a reason to forget them, either.