I recall more than a few of his views on life, and on teams, and on players, who were, to him, individuals to be studied closely so as to increase his knowledge of how to not only compete against them, but to fulfill Bill’s insatiable fascination with the human comedy and the general manner of behavioral society.
I don’t remember how he termed it exactly, but he said something like this: basketball was the only major sport in America where a player’s emotions were naked and held up before the public to examine. He explained that football players wore helmets and pads, baseball player’s caps, hiding their expressions and the looks in their eyes. Not so with basketball players, where when closely scrutinized you could read discouragement and perhaps demoralization and even defeat in the eyes of an opponent at the highest level of competition.
Mr. Russell was the all time expert at reading the personalities and moods of a player and using the needle or the feather touch to get a player thinking too much, or get him angry, or distracted, a master of psychological warfare. One of his favorite sayings about his greatest opponent, Wilt Chamberlain was, “Be nice to Wilt. Be sure not to get him mad.”
So I wonder if Mr. Russell has of late observed the eyes and facial expression of one of the all time greats, Kobe Bryant, the long time super star of the LA Lakers now 37 years old and struggling badly on the court. If Mr. Russell has observed Kobe, he is not seeing the same person whose ferocity on the hoop court was at one time so demonic he curled his bottom teeth over his upper lip in a bulldog scowl and aimed it with such menace at opposing players that they shriveled up into shells, totally intimidated.
The man was a ruthless, merciless assassin, wanting to destroy your ego and take your heart and any vestige of pride.
Today, Kobe appears perplexed, detached; and resigned to a fate he knew was coming eventually but cannot come to terms with: he is not quite finished, but damn close. His expression, his body English reminds me of the current Tiger Woods, who once ruled his sport of golf as cold-bloodedly and imperiously as Kobe did basketball, but now, older and exhausted by one injury and operation after another, like Kobe, he is beset by conjecture among the public and the media over his failing performance and sudden realization that the young competition is superb and hungry and wants nothing more than to kick his ass and watch with glee his psychological crumbling at the onslaught of it all.
Kobe’s press conferences and interviews, especially after defeats and performances disgraceful compared to what he achieved in his prime, like Tiger’s, reek of false optimism and positivity and lend one the sad evidence that he is delusional, and in denial of his demise as the press, competitors and teammates and coaches claim, because of past greatness, “you can never underestimate the heart of a champion and he might be back.”
Kobe is at last mortal. Once possessing in my opinion the most complete all around offensive arsenal in the history of the game. (yes, better than Michael Jordan who never had Kobe’s 3 point range) he could face you up on a triple threat from 26 feet and hit the 3 without a dribble in your face, drive right or left and pull up ala Jerry West for a 20 foot jump shot, continue to the hoop and dunk or complete an impossible twisting lay-in, and post you up with a deadly fade away and drop step superior to anybody in the league.
Today he is tethered to the perimeter, dependent on his teammates to get him the ball where he wants it, and these teammates, literally babies to the league, have no clue as what he is up to. A legend, he casts a shadow over them, stifling their development as they look to him for so-called leadership, mentoring, or to hit the winning shot one-on-one at clutch time, a feat he was once the best at but now fails at nightly, head held high in a pose of pride as he walks off the court again and again after each failure.
Today, believe it or not, the tentative look on Kobe’s face indicates he still wants that shot but is not sure it is going in.
Kobe has always talked of how playing basketball, and especially in big games, was fun. He said this with a sort of gloating grin. Kobe was always THE man on the biggest stage, a five time champion, but how in the world could he be having fun these days losing abysmally to one mediocre team after another and getting blown out by the good teams as he hoists air balls and bricks from beyond the three point line and is almost totally absent from the free throw line?
Like the great Larry Bird, who specialized in world class trash talk where he would tell an opponent how and when he was going to score on him, and destroy his confidence, and had fun doing it, Kobe, like Bird, has reached the end where his body will not allow this kind of one-upmanship. Kobe cannot be having fun. Losing nightly cannot be fun. Getting shut down by ordinary defenders and getting scored on at will by ordinary offensive players and getting destroyed by the new stars in the league cannot be fun. His team is going nowhere and portends to be even worse than last year's mess and is run by the most clueless owner in the league, Jim Buss.
He can no longer walk into the gym with a swagger indicating the game is HIS, the gym HIS to control. Like Tiger, he is no longer even rated in the top 100th players in the league. The most valiant and generous thing he could do is quit, right now, and refund the Lakers the millions they invested in him and go home to his wife and kids before, like so many others, he turns himself into a sad spectacle his opponents once feared but now enjoy punishing to the max after they deliver him going-away-to-retirement bear hugs following another loss.
Fat chance. It’s going to be a long season, Kobe, and the going-away hugs are going to get old real quick.