There’s little greater proof of an athlete’s power than when his appearance can remain an event, even after the glory stage is gone. So consider that among the legacies of Kobe Bryant who, by personal admission and statistical confirmation, has been among the NBA’s worst players early in its 70th season. Yet he’s still a marquee attraction everywhere he goes.
Bryant is visiting Miami currently, and Tuesday, he is expected to take the court against the Heat. That clarifier must be used because, these days, it’s never known for sure exactly what his 37-year-old body will allow; Monday, he came to the arena only for treatment and left before group media access.
But here’s the thing:
If he does play, let’s hope he plays well.
Because if this 16th regular season appearance in Miami is the final appearance, you don’t really want anything resembling his recent struggle to serve as the lasting local memory. Whatever you’ve thought of him — ambitious, arrogant, magical, maniacal, spectacular, selfish — there’s little more depressing in sports than a creaky, cratered superstar. Bryant promised he’d age gracefully as vino, but lately, like so many, he’s souring like latte.
Injuries limited him to just 41 games the past two seasons, and through the first six this season, his standout shooting night has been 5 of 12. He has made just 32 percent of his attempts overall, and his advanced metrics are more alarming: they strongly suggest the Lakers should give their $25 million man’s minutes to any league average performer.
The early results may have even altered this season’s approach. Bryant told his coach, Byron Scott, that, with this possibly his last season, he wanted to play “every game that I can play,” for the first time since 2010-11. Monday, with the season’s first back-to-back looming, Scott acknowledged some second thoughts about agreeing.
“We’re going to talk again,” Scott said.
Maybe even Tuesday morning.
“I know how he feels, and I understand that,” Scott said. “But my objective is to get him to play this whole season. And that might mean missing some games just so we can get through the whole year.”
No matter what, this will be it for Bryant in Miami this season. There will be no Heat-Lakers NBA Finals; while the Heat should be a playoff team in the East, the Lakers will be buried in the West by January. And while there’s a Staples Center date set for March 30, there’s no guarantee that both Bryant and Dwyane Wade will be available. By then, if the misery continues, even the relentless Bryant might ask for mercy.
So that’s another reason to root for a buoyant Bryant on Tuesday night, so that he and Wade can battle again on somewhat equal terms, at least one more time. Wade didn’t enter the league until 2003, by which time Bryant had already played six seasons and won three championships. “So he was so far ahead of me on where I could get in this league,” Wade said. “But he was the bar for me. I didn’t have no Michael Jordan when I was in the league. So Kobe was that bar for me.”
Bryant, nearly four years older, was also taller by two inches. Wade earned his elder’s admiration in part by never acting as if that mattered. Their teams first faced each other on Nov. 16, 2003, though Wade worked mostly as a point guard. Then came the Christmas game in 2004 — Shaquille O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles with a fresh new sidekick —when both played two-guard.
Bryant scored 42 to Wade’s 29, but Wade’s Heat won anyway. Wade has been the winner in 11 of the 19 meetings in all, though their individual statistics are strikingly similar: Wade with 24.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks, while shooting 44.8 percent; Bryant with 27.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.4 blocks, while shooting 44.1 percent.
This 20th regular-season meeting has another twist that might limit their head-to-head encounters; Bryant now primarily plays small forward. Still, Bryant is generally regarded as the second-best two-guard ever, a coronation Wade makes without hesitation. And Wade, for most NBA historians, is somewhere in the top five, depending on the position where Jerry West and Oscar Robertson are ranked.
So the nostalgia’s still warranted. Wade said he and Bryant started as competitors, gaining mutual respect by virtue of their shared work ethic and playing style. Then friends, at the Olympics in 2008. “Then keeping in touch and talking,” Wade said. For a while, they shared a trainer (Tim Grover). They still share some signature shots (post-up turnarounds) and distinctions (each playing for just one franchise). Tuesday, they share a floor. So, yes, it means something. Something for a Miami star trying to make another meaningful playoff run. Even more for a Los Angeles icon trying to make another memory before time runs out.