The greatest gift of 2015: Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem

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Has Kobe Bryant found a new career as a writer? Surprisingly, maybe.

By Andrew Pridgen

I have much to be thankful for when reflecting on the year that was in sports: The collapse of the dreaded Santa Clara 49ers and the faithful waking up to the York family boondoggle. The continued marketing juggernaut the San Francisco Giants have become and how I’m so easily duped into winking usage of #busterhugs. Jon Hamm’s karate snippet from Kimmy Schmidt. Ronda Rousey fighting everyone, including Wal-Mart, and cold winning…till she ran up against Holly Holm. Steph Curry bringing the everyman back to the NBA. Oregon football’s well-timed embarrassment at the hands of Utah and subsequent second-half revival. Squaw Valley USA’s continued missteps with its aspirational development in time to the earth’s overheating like a microwave burrito.

But the biggest news of this year, the best news, was that Kobe Bryant announced his retirement…in the form of free-verse.

It is strange to me that neither the announcement nor the delivery of it made much in the way of headlines. I think in part it’s because Kobe, in spite of having been the best player in the NBA for pretty much the entirety of this century, is not well-liked. It could be his personality, and more on that in a second. But that’s not all of it. There’s an atmosphere of racism that persists and, sadly, is strengthened through our prism of sport. This applies to Kobe. Until we stop comparing players in the context of race, (i.e. a mobile black quarterback prototype is the next Randall Cunningham, or a gritty white power forward is the next Larry Bird) we are no better than our predecessors. Worse, actually.

Worse because we should—and do—know better.

When I think about Kobe, I think about him in two ways: The first is the difference between how he wanted to be perceived the whole of his basketball career and who he really is. Since I don’t know the latter, I can only speculate there’s a vast crevasse between the two. I know this because of the self-imposed expectations he carried growing up a privileged expat that trailed him like a shadow his entire career. As a result, he never quite conformed to the American narrative of a black superstar athlete, never fell in line with the familiar African American tropes of conveniently beating the odds while the nation as a whole refuses to change.

Kobe always carried himself like an outsider, seemingly trying to grab his coat and duck out of the party unnoticed. He was raised on a different continent. He claims Italian as his native tongue and soccer as his favorite sport. He didn’t overcome remarkably horrific odds to join the NBA, so he was a cliché-buster albeit one who was treated as a pariah. As a result, he knew he belonged with them but was never of them. Always above them. You think that rubbed his co-workers and contemporaries the wrong way? Yes. Was the controversy of his mere presence justifiable? Absolutely. More than any other before or since, Kobe not only belonged there from day one, he was superior almost to the point of unmarketable.

Kobe in his basketball prime beat a rape charge in such a roundabout and unfinished way that formulating an opinion on whether he did or didn’t seemed secondary. Timing probably played a part in this. The craven politics of the matter were far-reaching and unsettling. Here was a complete role reversal we still ponder. A wealthy and powerful black athlete in his prime lured the unsuspecting white rabbit into his domicile. But then the outcome was far from expected. Some circles gave Kobe the benefit of the doubt, when perhaps they shouldn’t have. Others doubted the victim, when perhaps they shouldn’t have. It made us question not only our values, but how we value celebrity. She refused to testify. The charges were dropped. McDonald’s dropped him. Much more than that, a trust was breached on both sides. Aloofness turned to anger—on both sides.

All this was over three minutes between two people.

Then came the $4 million apology ring, coming home to the children and, eventually, the championships—five to be exact. There was Phil Jackson, who, if we are to believe the narrative, finally got through to him; and about a half-dozen other coaches who didn’t. The white-washed interviews with the throw-away questions and the ones that tried to find deeper meeting that fell short.

Kobe never seemed to know exactly how to handle fame without trying to mishandle, or dismantle it first. The minute a crack showed on the surface, he came along and turned that part of the vase toward the wall, shrugged, and kept on walking. It’s how most of us, black or white, would handle fame.

But the free-verse farewell was something else entirely. It was the final, unpredictable split from his wending narrative.

Did you read it? No? Here it is.

Dear Basketball,

by Kobe Bryant

My heart can take the pounding

My mind can handle the grind

But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

And that’s OK.

I’m ready to let you go.

I want you to know now

So we both can savor every moment we have left together.

The good and the bad.

We have given each other

All that we have.

And we both know, no matter what I do next

I’ll always be that kid

With the rolled up socks

Garbage can in the corner

:05 seconds on the clock

Ball in my hands.

5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1

I read it about thirty times. But I couldn’t make sense of it. To me, the prose sounded like something a really smart fifth grader would write or something a really dumb college freshman would turn in after a night of partying.

I felt as if the writer was thinking this is the way I should be writing, instead of getting it down the way the writer person actually feels. Right? That’s not to say I doubt whether Kobe wrote it, or even wrote it with feeling—he most certainly did. But I do feel words often fail us when we’re not able to articulate exactly what it is we’re thinking. Which means words fail us often.

Kobe is blameless in this. If we expressed all the crazy bullet train non sequiturs that ping pong in our collective noggins, we’d all be committed. Putting our actual, unorganized good vs. evil, sex-crazed and satisfied, hungry and frail and alone selves on paper in words is dangerous territory. It’s the  equivalent of someone breaking into your home, upending the card table in the middle of a Monopoly game, then peeing all over the floor before exiting the room to canned laughter.

So, I came to the conclusion the poem didn’t say exactly what Kobe was feeling, but did express just enough to get the point across. But I still had other questions about the merits of the verse itself.

For that, I sought the help of an expert.

I sent UC Berkeley poetry professor Charles F. Altieri an email requesting his analysis. The email also featured a typo in my subject line (of course) and an incorrectly placed apostrophe in the body—which I had to write back just after pushing send to apologize for. This made it that much less likely he’d write back.

Prof. Altieri was one of a number of poets and academics I reached out to, and the only one to respond.

Here’s what he wrote:

Shrewd of you to see the poem is ultimately about death. But its power is as a love poem. He really understands what there is to love about the all-consuming intensity of basketball. And he says it in a plain way that for me is convincing and insightful. There is very little artifice but deep feeling created by the direct address. So it is not an artful poem but it is a powerful use of an art.

I had not seen the poem. Thank you for sending it to me, under whatever rubric.

…The above, I think, is a genius reply for two reasons:

  1. He did something I was unwilling to do. He took the poem seriously. I should have. After all, it’s a public figure announcing his retirement from the sport that has given and likely taken everything from him. And Kobe did it in the all-caps MOST VULNERABLE way imaginable. To me, Altieri also gave the poem the highest praise one can give when analyzing such things: So it is not an artful poem but it is a powerful use of an art. This may be the best thing anyone’s said about Kobe Bryant this decade. It’s a moving sentence. It also made me realize that I was the dumb one for eschewing what turned out to be a remarkable piece of prose.
  2. Altieri 100 percent tomahawk dunked the response with the unforced use of the word rubric. I’ve tried to use rubric once or twice and never has it come off so fluidly and seamlessly, much less in the right context.

I wrote Altieri back and thanked him. I admitted I hadn’t gotten many (any) other responses.

…To which he replied:

I am delighted to be useful. I wish I were more surprised about the result with other scholars.

Basically, if you know anyone as cool as Charles Altieri, please find him and introduce us in 2016. Also, note to self, include the sentence, “I am delighted to be useful” in all applicable correspondence from now on. Something about those six words just made me feel so good that day.

So, there it is.

The greatest gift of all this year was from Kobe. His unmatched fluidity on the court (just go back and watch highlights of his 2003-’04 …even his mistakes were stunning—when he fell he’d slide across the court with staged perfection, like a beer being delivered in a movie saloon), his exceptionalism forged in the place where they build Ferraris; his guilty but loving smile; the stereotype of race he’s claimed, fought for and swung mightily against; the moments undocumented that give us pause and enable athletes’ careers to live on in memory; the allegations and projects that remain incomplete for him; the man formed but not yet fully. And ultimately—his own words to tell it.

And what beautiful words, alive words, they turned out to be.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from DPB. And a special thank you to professor Altieri for writing me back. Everyone go snap up one of his books on Amazon—poetry, indeed, is the gift that keeps on giving.

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