Kobe Bryant is Diddy Kong
by Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck)
There are no shortage of people who think Kobe Bryant’s career can be summarized in binary terms; he was a sidekick or a superstar, a clutch assassin or an overrated chucker depending on who you ask. He, like Diddy Kong before him, is a more complicated character than that.
Donkey Kong Country was built for success from the very beginning. The game’s titular character was lifted from an already popular arcade series, and Donkey Kong was everything a video-game protagonist was supposed to be. Burly, agile and capable of single-handedly destroying the Kremling army, Donkey Kong’s romp through the jungle probably could have been pulled off as a solo joint.
To suit the needs of a second player, a new secondary character was born: Diddy. He was derided as worse than his counterpart in almost every way, his agility a meager scrap for players given his lack of brawn. He bounced off various enemies that his bigger uncle could terminate, leading to many frustrating (but funny!) deaths for the amateur player. Eventually, once you had an understanding of what he could and could not do, the little bugger was a useful accessory in recapturing the Kongs’ great banana collection.
Shaq and Kobe’s relationship mirrored this dynamic for years. It was simply easier for a man of Shaq’s size to dominate the NBA, and dominate he did in L.A. The younger Bryant was happy to play accessory to the big man’s brilliance, taking over when O’Neal was in foul trouble or getting hacked to death by opponents. He was a breathtaking combination of athleticism and flash when on point, but everyone knew who the team’s fortunes rode with.
Except for Kobe, anyway. He was convinced he could be the star driving the franchise, and when his relationship with Shaq passed the point of no return, Lakers brass bet on the younger star.
RARE and Nintendo made a similarly big bet when Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest released in ’95. The franchise’s anchor was kidnapped, left to Diddy and girlfriend Dixie to retrieve. Rather than go off the rails, it spawned another all-time classic; Diddy came into his own as a Kremling-stomping beast, even showing off his personality with hip-hop celebrations to close levels.
It’s easy to look back and call it a success now, but this was insane. Nintendo risked alienating fans by handing them the “wimpier” hero from the first game and telling them to make due.
Of course, Nintendo had the good sense to pair him with someone who accentuated his talents, a hang-gliding girlfriend in the form of Dixie. The responsibility of being The Guy™ doesn’t mean you should be handicapped and given no help. The Lakers left Kobe hanging with the likes of Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic; this would have been like Nintendo asking Player 2 to romp through Crocodile Isle as a sloth.
You’re only as good as context allows you to be. If not for the miraculous acquisition of Pau Gasol, Dixie to his Diddy, the defining memory of “successful” Kobe would have been his time with Shaq, his prime wasted in the NBA equivalent of development hell. Some people will never give Kobe full credit for his success during the Shaq years; he will always be our first glimpse at Diddy, bouncing off armadillos into mineshafts and his skinny body unable to break through to all the secret areas.
Instead, we have a fully realized vision of his career. Kobe isn’t a sidekick or a headliner, he’s Diddy Kong, a success story across multiple career contexts. Unfortunately for Kobe, he doesn’t have Squawks to grab him by the shoulders and fly him away from the current Lakers roster.