Heisler: Thanks, NYT, for letting me show Kobe up close and personal, one way or another

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April 14, 2013

Email To: Jacie Prieto, publicist for Kobe Bryant
Subject: Kobe

Jacie,

Not that the situation is anything to celebrate, but after we arranged that one-on-one interview for a New York Times piece for today which they decided not to assign, I wound up writing about Kobe Bryant for them, after all.

It’s right here.

I actually think the last two weeks represent his high point, capped by a post-game interview after his Achilles injury with press people whom he held in contempt for years, in which he was not only gracious but funny, showing how far he had come as a guy.

new york times cover

As long as I’ve covered Kobe – 17 seasons – it was only a week ago, watching the final seconds of their 14-point loss to the Clippers, with Kobe draped all over Eric Bledsoe, hounding him from one end of the floor to the other, that I got this.

I’m thinking, “How does he make himself do that? How does he keep himself from saying, ‘Aw, the hell with it?’”

And then it came to me:

Kobe Bryant lives for the game to be on.

If it means fighting to the end of a game or playing 48 minutes for a month, he will do anything to preserve the notion or illusion that it’s not over and he can still pull it out. Which is why he winds up pulling so many out.

Nevertheless, he already has a bunch of titles. But he never had a moment in which he came across as gallant, as human, and – as I’m sure he will find as the reaction streams back to him – as a sympathetic figure.

This wasn’t Willis Reed going down in the 1970 NBA Finals. There will never be another one like that. But this was the closest thing the NBA has ever seen.

I had actually just told NYT I was no longer going to work for them after they decided not to assign our original story.

I had more reasons than that. NYT is the cathedral of the biz with a very conservative style that it is very serious about. As honored as I felt to be a correspondent, I’m more out of what you could call the Kobe Bryant School of Sportswriting.

I had just sent them the email when the news broke that Kobe had ruptured his Achilles tendon. kobeinjuryI emailed my boss at NYT, volunteering to cover the story if he wanted me to, and he did.

Bottom line: With all the years I spent following Kobe in good times and bad, and good times that felt bad, I would have paid the NYT to cover this landmark moment in his career.

I was a confidante of Kobe for eight seasons (not to mention a friend of the family, having covered Papa Joe Bryant in the 1970s) before Kobe exiled me to eight seasons outside that “circle of trust” he used to talks about – which he shared with Jack Byrnes in “Meet the Parents” – when he didn’t talk to me outside of group interviews.

Whatever ups and downs I had are nothing compared to the thrill it was to cover him, excesses, miracles and all.

If we take what we see every day for granted, Kobe posed a rare challenge, doing the incredible so routinely, he made it seem routine.

Of course, there are a thousand stat guys – most employed by ESPN – who will tell you Kobe wasn’t clutch with gigabytes of data to prove it. But they’re in their own world. I prefer this one.

The great thing about the last two weeks in general and the Warriors game in particular was it became impossible to miss Kobe’s gallantry, his passion and, best of all, the fact he could be a guy, like you or me, just infinitely more gifted and driven.

I am here to tell you he could play three-four more years at a high level if he actually uses some of that fabulous basketball IQ and stops all the death-defying, minutes-piling-up crap.

Of course, we will find out when the time comes, won’t we?

He’s Kobe. We don’t tell him. He tells us.

It’s like the story Mitch Kupchak told Saturday about taking his concern about the minutes to Kobe, who said he understood. But they had to make the playoffs, so he was going to stay out there and – according to Mitch – noted in closing, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Thanks again for your help,

Mark

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.

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