Evidently, Kobe Bryant is not a Dylan Thomas fan.
We can forgive No. 24 if he's not up on his 20th-century Welsh poetry, but you'd have thought the famous opening stanza from Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" would have some special appeal for a superstar now facing the twilight of his basketball life.
Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Bryant, whose competitive fire has always burned hotter than anyone's, isn't doing any raging at the moment—not if we're to take his measured demeanor and newfound candor seriously.
In an interview in China during a Nike Rise press tour, Bryant was subdued. And if you squinted hard enough, you could see hints of something strange in the way he spoke and carried himself: a sense of acceptance.
Make no mistake, Bryant maintains a focused manner. He seems confident. But he's no longer bristling at the concept of his own decline. In fact, he's confronting it.
"I can say I want to be able to jump as high as I used to. I want to be as fast as I used to," Bryant told reporters. "But no; I don’t jump as high as I used to. That’s okay. I’m not as fast as I used to be. That’s okay, too. I’ll figure out another way to do it."
There's resolve in those comments, but they're missing that destructive, crush-all-doubters vitriol we're so used to seeing from Bryant.
Where's the rage, Kobe?
Its absence lends an unfamiliar quality to the upcoming season—one we haven't felt for nearly 20 years. For as long as Bryant has been in the league, he's exuded a sense of invincibility. Now, he's showing a vulnerability that belies what could be a fundamental change in his makeup.
Age and injury have forced Kobe to face reality.
A self-admitted "70 in basketball years," according to a profile in Sports Illustrated by Chris Ballard, Bryant now understands that nothing lasts forever.
Humility and a softened demeanor have a candid Kobe doing more interviews, letting more people in than ever. He's making himself relatable. After all, who can't sympathize with someone confronting mortality? It's a dark thought, but one at the back of everyone's mind.
Bryant wouldn't have admitted it even two years ago, but now he seems comfortable (resigned, perhaps?) letting us know he's human.
There's a chance Bryant is just saying the same thing he always has in a different way. Maybe he's not admitting diminished ability when he offers up things like this, per Ballard: "So when I hear pundits and people talk, saying, 'Well, he won't be what he was.' Know what? You're right. I won't be. But just because something evolves, it doesn't make it any less better than it was before."
But Kobe's confidence has never come with a caveat before, and every rationalization could disappear if the Black Mamba delivers on his promise to be at least as "better" as he used to be.
We should all expect Bryant to adopt the same brash, standoffish demeanor if the season starts and his body miraculously allows him to dominate like he once did. If that's how things go, we can only hope the maturity he's showing this summer sticks around in some form. Perhaps he'll use it to impart wisdom to his teammates, and maybe he'll appreciate their flaws now that he's confronted some of his own.
Of course, a newly philosophical Kobe might do more harm than good.
"To be unstoppable, you have to first be predictable," Bryant said in China, recounting a conversation he had with Nick Young. "If you’re unpredictable, you don’t know what the heck you’re going to do. So how can you dictate to the defense what you’re going to do? So you have to be really simple."
Be predictable to be effective? Whoa.
That advice makes a lot of sense when you break it down, but Kobe might as well have been telling the freewheeling Swaggy P "there is no spoon."
And just so we're clear, the guy who once buried a left-handed three is encouraging predictability.
It's impossible to predict how the new (old) version of Bryant will perform this season. For every argument saying he'll be more patient and accepting of limitations, there's one saying the fact he knows time is running out will mean a shorter fuse than ever.
Unfortunately for Kobe, he'll be rejoining a Lakers team that doesn't look ready or capable of pushing for the playoffs in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Although, he seems to like a challenge so don't expect him to back down from trying to get them there. Let's just hope he has the help to make his 19th season much more relevant in the history of the NBA.
If it becomes obvious right away that the Los Angeles Lakers can't compete for a playoff spot (which it should), who knows how Bryant might react?
We can take Kobe at his word when he says he's "more motivated now than ever," in the China interview, but we have to do that while acknowledging something's different. We know Bryant will give his best effort, but it sounds like he'll do so in a more calculated way this year.
He's not going to rage—at least not like we've seen him in the past.
The point is, whether you're rooting for Bryant to succeed or fail, everyone can agree this is going to be the most fascinating season of his career.
Somebody ought to write a poem about it.