Commentary

Bryant's legacy is more of an on-court Darth Vader than a Yoda

Bryant may want to be Black Mamba or Darth Vader, but to rival franchises and the ever-critical NBA journalists, the 20-year veteran is becoming Yoda-like - nice, creaky and old.
Bryant may want to be Black Mamba or Darth Vader, but to rival franchises and the ever-critical NBA journalists, the 20-year veteran is becoming Yoda-like - nice, creaky and old.

We all know Kobe Bryant's self-given nickname, Black Mamba. So, make an educated guess, what's his favourite Star Wars character?

Of course, it's Darth Vader. But the Black Mamba is not even satisfied with being this cold, powerful villain with Jedi powers.

"I don't take orders from the Emperor, so (I'll be a combination of both, like) Darth Emperor, maybe," he said last week during a media conference.

Which is why his ongoing "farewell tour" is jarring on so many fronts for him - fans of rival teams being friendly with him, former opponents on the basketball courts giving him warm hugs and handshakes, franchise owners honouring him with awards and poignant video montages.

Hey, have they forgotten that one of Bryant's favourite moments is going to rival arenas and stab the proverbial dagger into the rival teams, silencing the booing crowds with game-winning shots?

Bryant may want to be Black Mamba or Darth Vader, but to rival franchises and the ever-critical NBA journalists, the 20-year veteran is becoming Yoda-like - nice, creaky and old.

But that's the "gentrification" of elite sports superstars once they reach the final moments of their career before they call it a day.

No matter how abrasive and divisive they can be to fellow pros, they will be accorded a high degree of respect and affection once they announce their impending retirements.

Bryant may want to be Black Mamba or Darth Vader, but to rival franchises and the ever-critical NBA journalists, the 20-year veteran is becoming Yoda-like - nice, creaky and old.

And just like that Jedi master, they sought his council and advice.

During an international conference call on Monday, ahead of his record 16th appearance on NBA's Christmas Day schedule, journalists picked his brain continuously - on advice for rookies, on how the Lakers would move on without him, even on the ongoing Fifa football scandal.

Being the well-trained, media-savvy veteran, Bryant answered each question earnestly, never being dismissive but rarely saying anything too revealing.

So, when asked how he felt about this "farewell tour" every time he plays outside Los Angeles, he said: "It's more like I'm paying my respects to the fans and they're doing the same in turn."

He also said that he would have loved to play overseas, probably in Spain, but his ailing body would not allow him. Yet, he is at peace with the fact that he will soon let go of the gruelling training that he has put himself through all these years.

You cannot help but feel that, had his body not failed him in the past three seasons, Bryant would have gladly played into his forties, continuing to torment rival fans and breaking every scoring record before he calls it a day.

Instead, he has to stay behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar again.

The former Lakers centre - who holds the all-time scoring record which Bryant was gunning for - was the last transcendent NBA superstar to get a proper farewell tour in 1989, when he ended a glorious 19-year career at age 42 and was feted at every away game that season.

Other megastars were not so lucky. Larry Bird and Shaquille O'Neal succumbed to career-ending injuries. Magic Johnson cut short his career after he found out he had the HIV virus.

And Michael Jordan could have had the perfect retirement - with his sixth NBA title in 1998.

Too bad that he came back for two more sub-standard seasons with Washington Wizards in 2001, and before he could embark on any farewell tour, was stunningly sacked by the team.

So Bryant should be thankful that his high-flying career should have a smooth landing in the end.

Maybe he did not reach the very top of his profession, but he flew really close, thrilling plenty of Lakers fans along the way.

But Yoda, he is not. So rival fans, please heckle him, so that he can find that old urge to shut every arena up with his last-second heroics.

Just like his favourite Star Wars character, Bryant ends up not as a hated villain, but as a complex character whom fans will continue to debate about, long after this farewell tour ends.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2015, with the headline 'Bryant's legacy is more of an on-court Darth Vader than a Yoda'. Print Edition | Subscribe