In your mind, is post-blowout Kobe reflective? Good-natured? Grateful?
Of course not. The Kobe in your mind is the one who existed for decades as a singularly driven, fanatical competitor. Most likely, your mental picture of Bryant after a loss like that involves him scaling the walls of the arena, breathing fire on the crowd. In-your-head Kobe is searing rage holes in the half-court logo with his laser vision. Knocking friend, foe and bystander unconscious with a menacing, protruded lower jaw.
Forty-eight points? Unacceptable for a guy who spent his career ruthlessly defiant, dominant and unapologetic about demoralizing anyone in the process.
Not this. Not this:
It was that and more Monday, as Bryant smiled through a moving tribute video before his final game in Salt Lake City and reflected fondly on his time there after the 48-point drubbing. And it's been like that for most of this season.
Bryant's farewell tour is revealing a man either evolved or cowed—happily accepting reverent applause from once-hated foes where, for years, all he sought was bent-kneed surrender.
There was the final visit to San Antonio Feb. 6, which included the requisite tribute video. Afterward, Bryant told reporters: "It was very nostalgic. Brought back a lot of memories. Just felt extremely touched by it. It's great. It's weird. It's hard to get into a competitive mindset after that because you just feel so thankful for them even doing that."
There was Bryant blowing kisses and waving sentimentally to the Philadelphia crowd Dec. 1:
Hometown or not, this is the same crowd that inspired Bryant to promise, "We're going to cut their hearts out," back in the 2001 NBA Finals.
There was the pay-it-forward postgame musing after facing Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns on March 18, with Bryant telling Arizona Sports' Kevin Zimmerman: "I think the most important thing about my career is being able to pass it on and have the next generation of athletes embody the same spirit and learn some of the same techniques and have that same mindset."
Contrast that with Bryant's attitude toward so-called "kids" in Phoenix back in 2006, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com, and you get an idea of just how much has changed:
Does he know me? Do I know this guy? I don't know this guy. I might have said one word to this guy. I don't know this kid. I think he overreacts to stuff...I don't know this kid. I don't need to know this kid. I don't want to. We go out there, we play the game and leave it at that. Maybe he wasn't hugged enough as a kid. I look at him a little bit, he gets a little insecure or something. I don't know.
That's Bryant talking about Raja Bell, who hit Kobe with a clothesline in that 2006 playoff series and nicely embodied the vitriol Bryant's play inspired in opponents and opposing fans.
2006: Kobe the cutthroat.
2016: Kobe the shoe-gifting mentor:
The decade-old version of Bryant is the one who feels real. It's the one who lambasted Smush Parker, belittled Andrew Bynum, emotionally trampled Pau Gasol and marginalized (perhaps justifiably) Dwight Howard. And those were teammates.
Let's also not forget the death stare he saved for former head coach Mike Brown:
Bryant isn't someone given over to tributes, or at least he didn't used to be. He's never been one for appreciating sentiment. Molding the youth has always been less of a priority than destroying it. The Bryant we see today isn't the one we've always known, and there are a couple of possible explanations.
The Cynical One: Bryant was a bully for most of his career, preying on the weak (and they were all weak in his eyes), uninterested in making friends, domineering toward teammates and dismissive of opponents.
He was powerful. He was a predator.
But like all bullies, once punched, Bryant was forever changed. Age, mortality and decline slugged him a handful of times over the past five years, and something critical is now gone from Bryant. The aura of invincibility departed, and he can feel it. So the only reasonable course of action was dropping the bully act.
The Humanizing One: Age changes us all. It makes us confront and accept frailty. Even someone like Bryant, who railed against it forever, has to face it. He's had no choice, and he hasn't always done it gracefully or willingly.
The early weeks of the 2015-16 season featured shot selection belying last-gasp resistance. It was tragic, comical and sometimes both. But having gone through that, Bryant now accepts his diminished status and embraces all the niceties his former self would have hated. He can appreciate reverence now, rather than cultivate fear. He can accept the love.
Whichever explanation is closer to the truth—cynical or humanizing—the Kobe who exists now isn't the one we used to know.
Fortunately, this present version won't be the one most remember. We'll remember the defiant acts, not the concessions. We'll remember the swath of destruction, not the farewell pageant.
And it's better that way. We prefer our NBA legends to be bigger than life, outsized, cartoonish. They're more focused, more possessed—even fanatical in their drive to dominate. It's better when we mythologize them, and up until this season, Bryant's refusal to compromise made myth-making easy. He was inhuman in the most appealing way.
Nobody wants to see heroes turn human. Nobody wants to watch them absorb the same painful lessons on mortality we'll all face eventually.
The Kobe Bryant we know would never let himself be defeated by kindness, softened by sentiment. So it follows that this is not Kobe Bryant.
This is somebody else.
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