Kobe Bryant may not be the best player in the NBA at this advanced stage of his impressive professional career, but he doesn't have to be in order to effectively function as the voice of this league. He's not in the running for the National Basketball Players Association's presidency, and he's still the NBA's elder statesman.
In a charity event for the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Sports Spectacular, the Black Mamba completed a remarkably honest, lengthy and varied interview with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. Ticket prices ranged anywhere from $25 to a cool $200.
Apparently "Kobe Up Close" draws a hefty sum of money.
How many superstars could command that type of cash without the promise of anything but a few interesting stories?
Tim Duncan would be laughed out of the room if he said he was going to charge up to $200, even if he's one of the most respected players in basketball. Even Kevin Durant and LeBron James might have trouble getting brokers to push the number that high.
But not Kobe.
It's all because of his candor.
There were several thousand people attending the interview, and that's a turnout that wasn't lost on ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:
Honestly, I think only about 5-10 sports figures could pull this kind of turnout off— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) August 16, 2013
Doesn't Shelburne's estimate actually seem a little high? I'm struggling to think of 10 athletes I'd drop $200 on for the chance to see him or her answer a bunch of questions when I could just read about it elsewhere.
And yet that's the type of crowd that Kobe still manages to draw, simply because audiences know that he's going to be honest.
Brutal Honesty Instead of Cockiness
They know that they'll get some interesting nugget of info in there, like the one he delivered rather early on in the proceedings about his chances to return for opening night. As relayed by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times: "I don't know if I'll be ready for opening night. I really don't know. I know I'm really, really ahead of schedule. With an Achilles' injury, it's just one of those freak situations."
Throughout the offseason, we've heard a lot about the Mamba's recovery from last year's freak injury, but he hasn't really let doubt creep into the equation. For all the impossibility of such a quick recovery, there still seemed to be this underlying assumption that Kobe was inhuman.
In fact, he revealed that he was not only willing to take a reduced role during the 2013-14 campaign, but also that he wanted to do so. "That's the goal. We got a little younger and picked up a couple of wing players who I really think will help us tremendously next year—Nick Young and Wesley Johnson. I really look forward to them easing the load."
While that's certainly an interesting tidbit of information, it doesn't show just how much Kobe has changed over the years. It at least starts to, especially given the stark contrast to the cocky, brash figure that was this shooting guard when entering the league.
Can you imagine a younger Kobe actually being willing to take a backseat? He would have to be forcibly restrained.
His metamorphosis has left him as one of the most revered, honest figures in basketball, and NBA fans have started to truly care about his answers to deeper questions.
Not many players have the gravitas necessary to discuss their place in the history of a storied franchise like this:
Kobe said he said he will never accept the honor of being the greatest Laker from Magic because he learned so much from him.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 16, 2013
And yet, his answer is the perfect blend of confidence and humility.
Kobe is putting himself in that same category as Magic Johnson, essentially acknowledging that yes, he is one of the all-time greats. However, he refuses to move himself past one of the true legends of the game.
Not because he thinks he's worse than Magic—if anything, I bet that if properly asked, he'd say he was the better basketball player, as that type of unwavering confidence is what has made Kobe's career—but because he respects the historical greatness of the point guard.
There's a difference between "best" and "greatest," after all.
Newfound Sense of Timing
Kobe also understands the all-important art of timing, as evidenced by this other tweet from ESPN's Arash Markazi:
Clippers told Kobe they wanted to turn things around and wouldn't be taken seriously if they drafted a 17 year old kid.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 16, 2013
In years past, bringing up this story about the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn't have made much sense. What's the point, as there were a number of other teams that passed on the Mamba's services as well when he fell to No. 13 in the 1996 NBA draft.
Well, this year the Battle for L.A. is more relevant than before. The Clippers are remarkably solid and prepared to compete, not just with the Lakers, but with the entire Western Conference. They have a solid shot at finishing with the No. 1 seed for the postseason, and that's something that the Lakers can't claim.
That means it's time for Kobe to drum up a little more motivation. Whether it's internal drive or an attempt to stir up Tinseltown just a bit, the timing of that story can't be overlooked.
Neither can his brutal honesty and willingness to speak on uncomfortable topics, as that's what makes him a refreshing voice of the league. Kobe could have declined to answer openly about the Chris Paul trade fiasco, but instead he didn't pull his punches.
Does Kobe think @CP3 should be a Laker? "Legally speaking? Yeah. David Stern speaking? No."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 16, 2013
Even if you don't particularly care for Kobe (and there certainly are rather large contingents of those people), you still have to respect the honesty. Not many people would have the guts to directly take on the commissioner like that, even in a season during which he's going to be stepping down and handing over the reins to Adam Silver.
While there were many other great pieces of information revealed during "Kobe Up Close," it's that quote that becomes most telling. It shows just how far the Mamba has come over the years, moving to a point at which he's respected for his refreshing honesty and openness, not disparaged for trying to create trouble.
Quite Different Than the Past
This is a guy whose career has been filled with controversy.
There's the whole Colorado incident, and while Kobe was ruled innocent, it still tarnished his reputation for quite a while.
Throughout his career, he's blamed teammates for shortcomings. Even as recently as 2012, he threw Pau Gasol under the bus after a playoff loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, as reported by Johnny Ludden of Yahoo! Sports:
Bryant missed eight of his 10 shots in the final quarter, but shrugged off his struggles by saying his teammates’ lack of aggressiveness “forced” him to take tough shots. He also left no question which teammate deserved the most blame for the 103-100 loss in Game 4.
Bryant faulted Gasol for not playing aggressive enough. It was also Gasol’s turnover that led to Kevin Durant making the winning 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds left.
“Pau’s got to be more assertive,” Bryant said. “He’s the guy they’re leaving [open]. When he’s catching the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to shoot the ball or drive the ball to the basket. He will be next game.”
And he was even worse earlier in his career. But that's not all.
Remember this interview with Stephen A. Smith?
He's requested trades away from the Lakers—a stark contrast from saying he'll remain a Laker for life. He's gotten in trouble for using offensive language on the sidelines.
There's by no means a clean slate here.
However, the past has become, well, the past. Kobe has completed the arc of his persona, shifting from the brash young stud to the competitive psycho who drove teammates away. Hell, there was a time when Lakers fans themselves started turning on Bryant following the Shaquille O'Neal fiasco.
Now he's remained a competitive psycho, but his candor has left him as a respectable figure who is starting to soften just a little bit when he relates with the general public. Whereas he was once rooted for solely by L.A. fans, that's changed slowly but surely over the last few years.
Kobe has matured into one of the league's premier spokesmen, and the NBA is better off for it. While it once would have been laughable to consider Kobe a candidate for the NBAPA presidency, it's now being seriously suggested by NBA analysts like Jason Whitlock:
With Lakers in shambles, Kobe Bryant should cement his legacy by leading NBA players union and reshaping basketball. @kobebryant— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) August 14, 2013
Will that happen? No, probably not. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Kobe isn't even in the running for the job.
But it's interesting enough that he's being mentioned. That never would have happened just a handful of years ago, but Kobe's candor and willingness to mature has changed how he's perceived.
You could say the Mamba has shed his old skin and put on a new coat, one that's much more accessible to fans and respected by the rest of the NBA.