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Kobe Bryant, the "Black Mamba," Has Shed His Skin But Remains a Snake

Kobe Bryant is suffering a midseason crisis. Back in October, with 16 years and five championships under his belt with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant had looked to his new super-team—stocked with the aging, future Hall of Fame guard Steve Nash and the veteran big men Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol—as his last, best chance to match or even surpass the six titles won by Michael Jordan, his idol and the rarely disputed Greatest of All Time. There was talk of a new dynasty; the team prepared to implement the “Princeton offense.” Then it all fell apart. Midway through the season, the Lakers have a losing record that wouldn’t qualify them for the playoffs, have undergone one coaching change (which, if anything, has made matters worse), and are reportedly thinking of trading Howard, their prized offseason acquisition.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in just the past three weeks Bryant, aka the "Black Mamba," has shed his old skin for a smooth new identity. He has reunited with his formerly estranged wife Vanessa, on whom he cheated ten years ago in an incident that was alleged to be rape (his accuser refused to testify, and the charge was dropped); joined Twitter with the words, “The antisocial has become social #mambatweets”; launched a new Nike ad campaign; and gave a rare interview designed to dispel the notion that since he entered the league in 1996 he has been a legacy-obsessed sociopath. “There’s something different about you,” ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Palmer remarked in the interview. “Because I am,” replied Bryant. “That’s just the maturation.” 

If the old Bryant was “Jordan: The Second Coming”—a dominant ball-hog obsessed with winning—the new Bryant is “Old Reliable”: a lover of the game above himself, still a high performer but also more modest, and a family man to boot. The seeds were planted a few years ago with Spike Lee’s ESPN documentary, Kobe: Doin’ Work, but a more appropriate definition can be discerned in the brand-new Nike motto: “Count on Kobe.” The object is to sell shoes, of course. But Bryant’s reboot feels more consequential and irrevocable than a simple branding shift. There has to be something more going on when what we get is a picture of Bryant seated at a piano, wearing a knit hat, winter coat, and two scarves, which he tweeted with the words, “Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata calms me down when I reach my breaking point #relaxandfocus.” Not that this shtick fits him any better than past ones have: The source of our enduring fascination with Bryant, perhaps the defining sports star of the past decade, remains the awkward self-consciousness with which he tries to convince us that he is something he is not. 

That we question his genuineness is the one constant in Bryant’s public life. In 2006, literary critic Sam Anderson memorably argued that Bryant labored under an “anxiety of influence” with respect to Jordan—that, to borrow Professor Harold Bloom’s theory of poets, he self-consciously strove to simultaneously imitate and one-up his predecessor. The tragedy of Bryant is less that he can’t top Jordan on the court (arguably, he can) and more that it was so bleeding obvious that this was what he was trying to do. “Kobe is painfully bad at mythmaking,” Anderson wrote. “Since he’s a Jordan-like talent, Kobe clearly thinks that he’s entitled to the Jordan mythology, but he doesn’t have any of Jordan’s charisma or imagination.” He added, “Kobe exists entirely within quotation marks.”

The new Bryant is as meta as ever—more a concept than a human being. He has not “matured” any more than he previously was “immature.” Rather, now he is playing a matured basketball player, where before he had played an immature one (who occasionally “grew” or “overcame” during the playoffs). His off-court performance remains as awkward as his on-court performance isn’t. Take the Beethoven picture. His outfit is not particularly ridiculous for a star in a league where thick-framed glasses are a fashion trend rather than an optometrical necessity. But then one wonders: Who bundles up to play the piano? And can he really play “Moonlight Sonata”? In Bryant’s hands, the whole set-up is so obviously staged, and therefore ridiculous, that it seems he should be in on the joke—except that he is too self-serious for self-deprecation, which only compounds the problem.

The same could be said about his ESPN The Magazine interview. “When was the last time you pumped your own gas?” Palmer asked Bryant at one point. “Yesterday,” Bryant replied. “I do all of life’s daily tasks.” (In response to that immortal line, an intrepid Photoshopper gave us this masterpiece.) Bryant boasted of being the best one-on-one player ever, while carefully noting, “LeBron [James] is a terrific all-around, five-on-five basketball player.” He denied the commonly accepted story that he nicknamed himself “Black Mamba,” while acknowledging his embrace of it: “I found out what a mamba can do with its quick-strike capability. There’s a really good scene in the movie Kill Bill that explains it.” These three quotes are not articulations, respectively, of domesticity, magnanimity, and self-confident humility; they are parodies of domesticity, magnanimity, and self-confident humility.

Earlier this week, Bryant live-tweeted a viewing of his historic 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors seven years ago, which Bryant had long claimed never to have viewed (this assertion was mocked three nights ago on TNT’s pregame show, which includes Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant’s former Lakers teammate turned nemesis). Twitter evidence suggests Nike put him up to the stunt. Bryant claimed that before the game he listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and that he could have scored 100 points had he not missed several “easy shots.” By the end, he tweeted, “I felt like I was looking at a Salvador Dali painting #masterpiece.” At least the Dada reference felt right.

And then there is basketball. That Bryant’s occupation feels like an afterthought speaks to the extent to which he wants us to think of him as bigger than, or at least apart from, the sport—which, in turn, suggests that his new persona might not be unrelated to his team’s mediocrity. Barely 18 when he played his first NBA game, Kobe is an old 34, but also the only member of his team to start every game this season. He has put the struggling Lakers—the NBA’s highest-rated soap opera this year—on his back, leading the league in field goal attempts (and field goals made) and averaging nearly 30 points a night. Kobe Bryant’s on-court play has been the quiet but coequal partner of his numerous identities through the years. This is why it's easy to accept the latest version of Bryant. On the court, you can still count on him to deliver the real, honest goods: basketball talent at its purest. But when he finally retires, no matter how he spins it on Twitter or in an ESPN interview, will we remember there was once something genuine about this snake?

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the team against which Bryant scored 81 points.