You know that face. The focused eyes. The jutted jaw. The barred teeth. You know that face, and when you see it, you know what it means. It’s a look of determination, a glare that decrees, “I am not allowing my team to lose this game. Not on my watch.” When Kobe Bryant unveiled that face during the 2009 playoffs, I saw a man on a mission whose will would not be denied.
An athlete’s will is a powerful creature. We’ve all witnessed it manifest; it’s a palpable, stirring force. A strong enough will galvanizes a team, a franchise, a fan base. We expect our star athletes to possess this iron will, we idolize them when they unleash it, and condemn when they can’t. See James, LeBron for a prime example of this dichotomy.
The shelf-life of a professional athlete is so short that often the most compelling decision is when to end it. Do you call it quits on the highest of highs, like Michael Jordan in 1998, or do you hang on to the glory for dear life, like Jordan in 2003? Will it end when your passion wanes, when your skills diminish, or when your body breaks down? There is no definitive answer, but I’d wager it lies somewhere between the body breaking down, and the ego accepting everything else.
Back to that face, the face that is so emblematic of Kobe Bryant’s will. Kobe’s will is legendary, rivaling and possibly exceeding that of Jordan and Russell and Bird. So imagine my surprise when I noticed Kobe’s will ebbing, when that face didn’t assure victory. The Lakers were recently mired in a stretch that saw them lose 9 consecutive games when he scored 30 or more points. Pundits everywhere wondered if this was a sign that Kobe was shooting too much; instead I noticed that this signaled a decline in Kobe’s will. Kobe’s ability to single-handedly will his team to victory was escaping him, far before his passion waned, his skills diminished, or his body broke down. Instead I wondered, “Is this the beginning of the end?”