Free Darko Previews: Kobe Bryant

As established, we're dangerously close to the start of the NBA season, with all its drama storylines and sturm und drang and months of madness. To us, part of the beauty of the NBA is that its focus, while ultimately on the team, falls on the individual. The plight of one player becomes an epic tale in the shadow of Jordan; who is the real alpha dog? It's this source of expression and personal comedy/tragedy that makes the game so compelling. There's nowhere to hide out there.

No site captures this feel more than the great Free Darko, which we read like a doctor's chart every day during the NBA season. They understand the dichotomy between individual achievement and collective glory, and how those are not mutually exclusive. And they've got a way with letters too.

Therefore, we've asked them to look at the arcs of certain players going into this season, what 2006-07 means to them, their teams and their legacies. They'll be previewing a player a day, up to tipoff next Tuesday.

Today: Kobe Bryant. Your author is Bethlehem Shoals. His words are after the jump.

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Eighty-one points, the most ungodly run of scoring proficiency since MJ, a late-season belief in the team concept, a classic tussle with the heavily-favored Suns in which he hit new highs and lows of basketball character — unless you've been living beneath the wrong sky, you know all about that. Bean Thousand may never live up to the impossibly high standard he's taught us to hold him to; while he has so much poise it's uncomfortable, his judgment and ego are still Achilles-like ironies. But there's no way that, especially during that seminal Round 1, a sane man could watch Kobe and not suspect he was watching absolute offensive perfection. Anyone who says otherwise has no one but their own arrogance to blame.

Remember when debating Iverson was pretty much synonymous with talking NBA? I do, and I know now that not many people bother with it anymore. Yes, Iverson has reined in his game a tiny bit over the years, which mostly means he mans the one and lets an assist fly now and then. What really happened, though, is that the Association's landscape morphed, new stars shone, and all of a sudden Iverson just wasn't as important. Although AI remains a polarizing figure, now the world can accept that one loves him or hates him, and that what fuels these fires is emotional, personal, and in no way a matter of universal law. Last season began with the usual senseless smears and paeans, but by the end, more and more people had no problem admitting that Kobe was not the Antichrist. Their lives would no longer be tarnished for it.

So suppose the trial, Shaq, the smirk, the rock and Nutella are now soggy embers. Kobe may be finally getting a chance to merely be a transcendent basketball player, rather than the Next Jordan or public enemies Nos. 1-5. Heading into this season, 24's dealing with less burden than ever, and thus needs to get down to business and author that second act. What we all want to know is whether Kobe can (as weird as this sounds) harness his mastery of the game instead of getting pretentious about it. Whether we can see him execute the triangle with that efficiency that makes Phil's beard drip. And to feel that, demons or no demons, Kobe Bryant can step on a basketball court and comport himself like an honest grown-up.

Free Darko Previews: Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant just needs to play ball. Of course, that's impossible. If you caught his "Inside the NBA" guest spot, you have some sense of how cerebral the man is. It's only in the last quarter that he slips into anything like a groove or a trance, and even there it's more like a demonic lockstep of the will. He's a constant strategizing, psychologizer and trickster, not unlike the Zen Master over on the bench. You'd like to think, though, that Kobe could once and for all make this a part of his game, rather than making it a distraction from getting things done.

The addition of Vlad and Farmar certainly haven't made the Lakers worse, Odom will build on his triumphant last couple of months, and Kwame, Bynum, Smush and Turiaf aren't the kind of young players who pose more of a problem as they age. Ultimately, though, improvements around Kobe won't mean shit unless he gives them some round. This doesn't mean fewer shots, less fanfare or a more balanced attack. Really, it's about Kobe letting basketball just be basketball, since a lot of the world finally seems ready to let him do that. He needs to recognize that's he got that freedom.

If he can't? Then eff it, the rest of y'all have been right all along.

Free Darko Previews: Kobe Bryant