Thanks to some intrepid reporting from noted suit-wearer Josh Lewenberg at TSN, we now know what the Raptors’ Norman Powell did last summer. He went to Spain (what is with everyone going to Spain?), he got to party in his hometown with the Larry O’Brien trophy (as did we all, really), and he bought his mom a car (Norm is a good son). All in all, it’s been a good summer for Powell.
But then: enter Kobe.
Lewenberg’s piece goes on to document (as originally reported by Jovan Buha and Sam Amick at the Athletic) the two days Powell spent in Kobe Bryant’s summer basketball camp in late-August. Other players out of the 20 or so that were invited: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jamal Murray, and, gulp, OG Anunoby. We can apparently thank Raptor coach Phil Handy for getting Toronto’s two young guys into what sounds like a pretty exclusive club.
Why then do you detect a note of concern in my voice so far? Let me explain. While there is no doubt that numerically Kobe has achieved quite a bit in his NBA career — many points, many awards, many titles — there is also something, let’s say, off about him and his approach to basketball (to say nothing of life itself). It’s gotten to the point that saying a player has “Kobe Brain” is a useful descriptor wholly understood by discerning NBA fans. (Naturally, Kobe also has some of the least discerning fans in the world — they love him no matter what. And that “what” contains multitudes.)
So what does this recent brush with “greatness” mean for Norman Powell and the Raptors? Let’s delve a bit into Lewenberg’s column and tease out a few answers that I’ve helpfully divided into three categories of concern.
First, let me say, it’s not all bad. Having Norm play with elite players in any setting is good for his confidence and his ability to perceive the game. The only way for Powell to grow is to test what his limits are, to figure out if he can indeed get the better of players like Kawhi or a 41-year-old Kobe. For a second round pick, one still trying to ascend in the NBA, it makes sense to go against the very best.
From the sounds of the quotes Lewenberg was able to elicit (again, read the piece), Powell was keen to peak behind the curtain of the truly elite of the NBA. Take for example this one: “To be able to sit, talk and see him break down the game — like, that’s my favourite player. I always try to take his mentality and approach to the game and implement that into the way I played – the competitive fire, passion and daily grind of getting better and working on the little things.”
That’s the tip of the iceberg here, but it gets at what Powell will need to do in the 2019-20 season for the defending champion Raptors. He’s got a shot at the starting two-guard spot (Kobe’s position), assuming he can play with a similar brand of controlled fury and intelligence. Powell has shown over his years in Toronto that he’s got the athleticism to make eye-popping plays and enough of a shooter’s touch to be a threat from anywhere on the court. Toronto will need that inside-out play and aggression, and if it takes a stern lecture from Kobe to get Norm there, so be it.
“I see where people think he is insane in the way he thinks but he’s really like that. It was amazing to see that high level of thinking.”
That’s Powell reflecting on his time spent with Kobe and, really, it sums up both what makes Bryant one of the league’s more noteworthy players, and what makes him a textbook case of the old adage: don’t get high on your own supply. This is where we find the on-court problem with attempting to model one’s game after that of Kobe Bryant.
As Norm notes in the piece, watching Kobe work allowed him to get super in-depth, breaking down plays into their smallest parts and really making sense of what makes them tick one way or the other. For a player like Powell, who still spends much of his time on the court going at one (often out of control) speed, this kind of slow review could be helpful.
But there’s a reason why “Kobe Brain” is a thing. And that thing is this: for all of Kobe’s supposed all-world basketball intelligence, it certainly seems like he only played the “right” way when he absolutely had to. Even Raptors coach Nick Nurse knew enough to joke about it, saying “I’m not so sure there was a lot of passing at that camp.” Now, this is all being relayed third-hand to me from Lewenberg’s reporting, but it fits in with how many have taken to view Kobe’s supposed awesomeness. To my mind, he became the best by pure attrition. He was willing to do more, to accumulate more, to grind more than any other player — and pointedly refused to comprise, even when it cost him a chance at even more accolades. When you look at Kobe’s accomplishments free of any broader context they are indeed impressive. In fact, when you go into the minituia of his on-court play, as it sounds like Norm did this past summer, it is indeed impressive too.
A broader view though, one taken at a few steps’ remove from the myth Kobe has constructed for himself, exposes all of that to be sort of empty. The Raptors should hope that Norm doesn’t try too hard to become Kobe, is my point.
Enough has been written about post-retirement Kobe that really clarifies where we, and the league, should stand on him nowadays. I’ll cede the floor here to Albert Burneko of Deadspin to really blast through the case, as is his wont. The point here is this: while it’s admirable of Norm to seek out the best to try and learn and grow, it’s important to provide just a bit more context here about who Kobe is as a person. I get that he’s just trying to learn about the game of basketball, but surely there are other brains out there for him to pick, right?
In truth, that “insane” thinking that forged Bryant into an on-court killing machine has also made him into something of, let’s say, a not-normal person in all other walks of life. Now, Bryant will be the first to say that that mindset is what made him into the success story he is today. But I look at the totality of his life and wonder: is it in fact a success story?
There are another couple of other adages to apply here. First is a Bible verse from the Book of Matthew, 16:26: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” And the second is much simpler than that.
Never meet your heroes, kid.