“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” the youth-centric Neil Young quote goes. The line from “Hey Hey, My My” became a mantra for those who felt that their lives were more important in their youth, when they were fully engaged and vibrant rather than seeing themselves age and grow increasingly irrelevant. Yet, with age, there are some that disprove if not completely smash this perceived notion of the young. Kobe Bryant is one of these people.
The Lakers were considered shaky at best as the season began. There were new faces and plenty of lingering injuries. As with all things Lakers, the biggest questions surround Bryant. During the lockout, he traveled to Germany to undergo experimental procedures on his left ankle and right knee. His right knee was the focus of much attention last season as Bryant had to have it drained to reduce swelling on multiple occasions. Then, as the current season began it was discovered that he was playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist. Bryant shoots right-handed.
It was understandable, considering the list of injuries combined with age, and going through a divorce, that some began speaking about Bryant in the past tense. He has had a remarkable career. No one can take away his accolades and accomplishments. He was a high school kid from Philadelphia who came into the league and was immediately cast under the specter of Michael Jordan. He survived. Bryant casts his own shadow now entirely independent of Jordan’s. Perhaps this is the season that he would fade away.
To imagine that outcome is farcical. This is Kobe Bryant, the most competitive and self motivated player in the game today. Despite his quest for perfection, he is a flawed individual, like anyone, yet no one is more intense and focused than Bryant. Not for a moment did he think he could not compete at the level he is accustomed to. If anything, the doubters fueled his fire.
The past three games, against the Suns, Jazz, and Cavaliers, showcased Bryant’s desire to steal the league and the headlines from everyone. He scored 48, 40, and 42 points respectively in those contests while shooting a combined 50.5 percent from the floor. By doing so, Bryant is now the oldest player, 33 years old, in NBA history to have three consecutive 40 point games. The most impressive game might be the one against Phoenix where none of his 48 points came from behind the three-point arc. And lest we forget, he did this all with a torn ligament in his right shooting wrist. So much for fading away.
Bryant leads the league in scoring with 406 points and a per game average of 31.2. He also leads the league in usage percentage at 40.1 and why not? Mike Brown has said that he wants Bryant to shoot the ball and he is happy to oblige his head coach. It is no wonder, even with Lob City sharing the same building, that fans flock to Staples Center and religiously chant “M-V-P” for Bryant. With the season he is putting together, it looks as though he is gunning for that award again.
Kobe Bryant will not burn out, nor will he fade away. He exists beyond that. It would be unfair to make judgements about whether he is a better player now than he was in his youth. They are two separate entities with two completely different styles of play. His mind, however, is as sharp and as focused as it may have ever been short of the NBA Finals. With Bryant there cannot be absolutes surrounding the waning years of his career. For now, he is here to stay and amaze the fans that watch him while also enduring a level of worship and vilification that few have. When Bryant eventually leaves the game, he will not be forgotten. Right now, he is reminding us of why that is.