Italy. The country, with its rich history and culture, brings to mind many different things to different people. High fashion, delicious food, fine wine, luxury cars, a romantic language, awe-inspiring natural scenery, classic architecture, all sorts of beautiful art. These are just a few of the things one might think when they hear the word. Despite whatever problems it may have, the country exudes an inimitable elegance. Even its mafia tales have a certain folkloric charm.
The long line of classic cultural icons Italy has produced include Vivaldi, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few. These were individuals who showed mastery in their fields and who inspired countless others. Whether it be Vivaldi’s compositions, Michelangelo’s sculptures, the designer clothing, or the stunning ocean vistas, a common thread between so many aspects of Italian life and culture is the sense of beauty which is so frequently evoked. Aptly, the country is nicknamed “Bel Paese”, meaning beautiful country.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Kobe, the son of professional basketball player Joe Bryant, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1978. When Joe Bryant signed a contract to play basketball in Italy in 1984, young Kobe tagged along.
The future hall of famer would spend roughly 8 years of his childhood in Italy. Although he recounted battling racism there, Kobe appeared to have developed an affinity for his former home. In fact, he flirted with the idea of joining an Italian professional team during the 2011 NBA lockout. Italy, Kobe noted, was where his NBA dream was born. He praised the country's developmental system for focusing on basketball fundamentals over flashy tricks, crediting this as a factor in his success. Bryant’s Italian experience also fostered his love of soccer, which he cites for improving his footwork and off the ball movement on the basketball court.
Italy’s influence on Kobe was so pronounced that he was remembered in part for his “Italian qualities”, according to the Washington Post.
Reminiscing on Kobe Bryant’s approach to the game of basketball, it struck me how his upbringing left an imprint on his on-court style. It is quite fitting that the most prominent basketball figure with a direct connection to the “beautiful country”, and one who also loved soccer, commonly known as the beautiful game, would exhibit such a beautiful style of play on the court.
An association between beauty and basketball is perhaps most frequently made with regard to the 2013 and 2014 San Antonio Spurs. In my mind, the ‘beautiful’ descriptor for those squads was spot on. How the Spurs brought beauty to the court may have differed greatly from Kobe’s MO, but that just goes to show the subtlety of beauty, and the many forms it can take. While the former achieved a beautiful brand of basketball by showcasing a well-oiled machine greater than the sum of its parts, the beauty of Kobe’s play is through his individual mastery of the sport’s nuances. Both forms of beauty may differ, but they share an enrapturing combination of form and function. For Kobe, the virtue of his playstyle followed from the love he had for his craft in tandem with his tenacious personality. These two forces appeared to lead him to a studious, detail oriented approach to the game.
The studious characteristic is seen from Michael Jordan’s obvious influence on Kobe’s playstyle. Clearly, Kobe patterned a number of his moves off of MJ. Far from being worthy of derision, I see this as a resoundingly positive quality.
The Jordanesque qualities of Kobe’s game exhibit his willingness to learn and his appreciation of time-tested formulae for success. Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, he drew from the repertoire of a past great, adding his own wrinkles and layers to suit his era, his situation, and his own unique abilities. It may be tempting to fashion a playstyle radically different than anyone else, but recognizing the value of established methods and developing them further is typically a more effective strategy. After all, it is exceedingly rare to be blessed with Giannis’ freakishness, Shaq’s power combined with a soft touch, LeBron’s one-of-a-kind athleticism, or Steph Curry’s preternatural shooting ability. That being said, Kobe was undoubtedly blessed with astounding athleticism and natural ability (he was the son of a successful NBA player after all). The difference is that his profile fell into a more traditional, albeit still very rare, archetype: the athletic two-way swingman. What better athletic two-way swingman to mould oneself after than Michael Jordan?
What truly differentiated Kobe’s game and gave it the aforementioned beautiful quality was, in my opinion, his attention to detail. The inner workings of his mind were on full display on the well-named ESPN series Detail, which he hosted. In this series, Kobe would break down the subtleties of NBA stars’ play. It was a fascinating series that showed a brilliant approach to basketball. Every play and every available option on each play was worthy of careful analysis. This appreciation of nuance was also a feature of Kobe’s on-court play. His game was counter-heavy and he demonstrated a supernatural feel for where to be on the court.
Meticulously maneuvering around off-ball screens, freezing an opposing defender with a pump fake transitioned into a flawless reverse pivot step-through shot, breaking down defenders 1-on-1 with crisp dribble moves and an innate sense of what options the defense is leaving him, lobbing up a well-timed alley-oop pass to a cutting Shaquille O’Neal, swishing a highly contested pull-up jumper which most players would never even attempt.
It is impossible to translate the beauty of Kobe’s game into words, but these are a few sequences which show his brilliance. As LeBron recently put it, “he has zero flaws offensively”. More than just a lack of flaws, it seems to be the depth of Kobe’s bag of tricks which gave his play such an air of beauty.
Many greats have a go-to move/play or two and then some counters depending on how the defense is playing these primary options. On top of Kobe’s go-to mid-post fade-away, he would also make sharp cuts and pop out for jumpers off-ball, attack the basket doggedly with impressive aerial maneuvers, showcase phenomenal post footwork, pull-up from mid-range, and hit threes.
He was well-developed enough at all of these ways of scoring that it rarely felt as if he was settling for subpar looks, even if he did have a tendency to favor difficult jumpers more than what would be ideal. Still, there is a reason that for years kids would yell “Kobe!” upon throwing just about anything: he had a magical aura which made it seem as if any shot, no matter how difficult, was makeable. All of this is without mentioning his underrated passing abilities or his often great defense.
Although it has been touched on briefly, this discussion further raises the question of what exactly made Kobe’s playstyle so exceptionally beautiful, even among basketball’s greats. Beyond the multitude of moves at his disposal, another theory of mine to explain this phenomenon is that his play did not seem pre-programmed. Contrast Kobe’s style with that of James Harden. While I think there is a beautiful aspect to Harden’s play, there is also a sort of ugliness to it. Whereas Kobe appears to play the game spontaneously, it does not take a Phil Jackson level basketball guru to see that Harden’s game is based off an engineered effort to find the statistically optimal shots (dunks, free throws, and three pointers). This gives it a somewhat affected quality compared to the freer flowing style of Kobe and is in a way more robotic. The jury is still out, but it appears to this point that the “purer” style holds up better when defenses clamp down in the playoffs.
After all, what exactly does the word beauty mean? While we may all have an idea in our minds, it is difficult to put that idea into concrete terms. The first Google search result tells us that one definition is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight”. The recently deceased British philosopher Roger Scruton offered a description which I prefer. “We appreciate beautiful things not for their utility only, but also for what they are in themselves—or more plausibly, for how they appear in themselves”, wrote Scruton. To me, this sums it up. Kobe’s style of play did not just produce results, it also amazed with its package of athletic ability and intricate skill. His tragic death gives us an opportunity to – at least momentarily – cease the bickering over which player is better than which, and to instead simply appreciate what each is in themselves.
You inspired awe, you instilled motivation, you helped shape countless lives, you brought joy to millions, and so much more.
Thank you, Kobe.