San Antonio, where being a borderline sociopath isn’t everything


Eric Freeman has penned the latest chapter in what will, inevitably, be an anthology called Kobe Bryant’s Jordanesque Desire to Win. Or some such. It’s one of the better chapters, so if you haven’t already read it, saunter on over to Ball Don’t Lie.

Freeman’s take is really Bryant on Bryant, and winds up somewhere between the ontological necessity and genetic predisposition camps. Kobe does what Kobe does because he is who he is.

Freeman writes, “Having a bordlerine-sociopathic need to win has been a fact of his [KB’s] basketball being for his whole life. It’s second nature on the court, existing beyond rational motivation.”

That borderline-sociopathic thing gets a lot of play. Danny Ainge once used it to justify overpaying Brian Scalabrine. Scalabrine, you’ll remember, is member of the Michael Jordan Brain Map Club. Scal is a killer.

I’m not knocking a desire to win. In fact, I think there is some virtue in the Jordan/Bryant pursuit of excellence, although I tend to see it more of a sociological thing and less about how someone is “wired.” I’m more inclined toward Rene Girard than Jonathan Niednagel, but I recognize there is a spectrum of consideration here, and it’s not simply a question of nature vs. nurture.

It’s undeniable that a profound desire to win is often what separates elite players from great ones. But I don’t believe that the Jordan/Bryant trait is necessary for success.

Tim Duncan is, some would argue, the best player of his era — let’s not get hung up on that, let’s just say Duncan is historically great — but he isn’t of the sociopath ilk, unless you imagine him as some cruel, calculated Anton Chigurhish madman.

Tim Duncan is bereft of psychobabble. And he doesn’t really fit into the win at all costs model which is popular to mythologize. There is no mythology surrounding Duncan, other than the robotic, binary code, beep-beep gag. And if there is a pathos at work, it’s that Duncan is cerebral and hard-working, but those traits are common to success, and there is nothing especially unique about either as they relate to people who excel their contemporaries.

This doesn’t mean that Tim Duncan is any less concerned about winning — four championships and an all-time great win percentage (regardless of sport). But his path to the winner’s circle is different. No halftime rah-rah, motivational spiels, or primal chest-thumping. He’s never intimated that some unquenchable desire to win resides deep within his soul. Winning does not flow from who Tim Duncan is, it flows from what he does.

Tim Duncan is every bit the model of excellence that Kobe Bryant is, but his approach is not the same. There is a lesson in this, I think. It’s not always necessary to Be Like Mike in order to achieve like Mike. And Tim Duncan and the Spurs are too often forgotten as a commendable, even fascinating, approach to winning. It’s something we should think more deeply about.

  • Eric W

    You could also throw Robert Horry in that mix. One of history’s greatest playoff “killers” once said (wish I could find the link) something along the lines of he was great in the clutch because he didn’t “care” whether or not the ball went in. In terms of the greater priorities of his life – that shot didn’t matter. There was no “need” to hit the game winner and be victorious, it was just gravy.

  • buns

    It doen’t add up to the conversation, but I think it’s worth an applause:
    48moh is an expletively good blog.

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  • SAinSLC


    Your post brings up a fantastic book called The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It sheds an interesting light on your point about Duncan’s greatness having more to do with his commitment to consistency over some primal need to win no matter what.

  • BlaseE

    I remember Brent Barry talking on NBA TV one night and saying how he thought people often underestimated our big three’s desire to win.

    I’ve always wondered what kind of professional stress pro athletes go through if they don’t win championships in that it’s what their paid to do to some extent. I know players want to win to win because they themselves are competitive, but is there a point where an athlete rationalizes it to say, “If I don’t win, I’m a bad employee taking money I haven’t earned.” I’m not saying it is a correct rationalization, but I wonder if any athletes feel that way. It reminds me of when Ricky Williams had the incentive based contract.

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ BlaseE

    I’m pretty sure about 85% of athletes don’t care what happens as long as they get their paychecks. Why else would LeBron sign with Miami over Chicago? Or Turkeyglue choose Toronto over Portland (he essentially traded a potential WCF berth for a few million bucks)? If Baron Davis really wanted to win, he’d get into shape and demand to be traded to a winning team. It’s a sad thing.

    It makes me appreciate our organization even more.

  • Daniel

    Sociopathic desire to win? That’s just a synonym for “This guy’s a total jackass, but he’s popular and his team wins so we need to find some way to make it sound better.”

  • quincyscott

    For me, it boils down to why I watch sports in the first place. I need something human and familiar to root for. I never wanted to be like Mike; I have always rooted for athletes that were like me–or at least who I believed had things in common with me. I need their flaws and imperfections to be able to hang my hat on something. I need their shortcomings. To be honest, nothing bores me more than watching Kobe Bryant play basketball. Never got into Jordan, either. These guys just seem to having nothing to them other than sports.

  • Frank

    @Eric W – I think Pop said it best when he described Big Robs’ desire to win in his most recent press conference, “I do not think Robert ever saw a shot he did not like….Or a burger!”

  • McShane

    Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that Kobe is not worth watching, quincyscott. Kobe is fun to watch, but he’s little bit of a D-Bag. TD isn’t. Let’s leave it at that.

    The Spurs are fun to watch because Pop, TD, Manu, TP, and the rest of the team are masters at what they do. It doesn’t hurt that they play in the same city we (I) live in.

  • The Beat Counselor

    Ummmmm…Lenneezz and I just had this WHOLE conversation last month!

    Get your head in the game yo.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    Pardon the allusion from another athletic discipline: Tim Duncan is the character equivalent of boxing’s Manny Pacquiao: Humble, hardworking, and, more often than not, rises to the occasion – admired and well-loved, to boot. On the other hand, Kobe Bryant is similar to Floyd Mayweather Jr: cool, cagey, and calculating, and, if LeBron James were not around, might rank as the most hated player in the NBA.

  • Tim in Surrey

    A couple of things:

    First, this came up in David Thorpe’s chat yesterday:

    [Robert (Brooklyn)

    It seems that Lebron doesn’t have the killer instinct to lead a team to a championship. Im thinking of championship teams having at least one leader that wanted to crush their opponent do or die. What do you think

    David Thorpe (12:44 PM)

    It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Who played that role for the 4 time champs in SA, Mr. Robinson, Duncan, or Manu? Three of the nicest guys in the league.]

    Second, I’ve always thought that this kind of thing was more an example of sociopaths using winning to justify their excessive behavior, than of winners using sociopathic behavior as a mindset necessary for victory. Coaches are probably the worst of all in this respect. But for every Larry Bird there’s a Magic Johnson, and for every Bobby Knight there’s a John Wooden. I’m a teacher and grew up in the military, so I know this from two other worlds: You don’t have to inspire through fear, you can also inspire through love. And there’s a difference between someone who wants to win for themselves and/or their team and someone who wants to defeat others. I love the way that Bobby Knight always used George Patton as an example to excuse his childish behavior (“They’ll lose their fear of the Germans. I only hope to God they never lose their fear of me.”) when, frankly, most of the best generals in history have treated their enemies with respect and their men with love. It’s the same with basketball. Yes, you can dominate with a sociopathic mentality and by using the desire to punish those who’ve slighted you as a motivational force. Or, you can be like Russell, Kareem, the Big O, Magic, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan–champions all–and have a life, too.

    Third, I know it has been a few years since he has visited Eagle, Colorado, but Kobe should probably still try and discourage people from using the word “sociopath” to describe him.

  • Timothy Varner


    I didn’t see the Thorpe chat, but he’s speaking my language. The “killer instinct” thing is more of a PR maneuver and less of a biological one.

  • Len

    Manu is the Spurs uber competitive guy. It’s obvious guys, Manu is the “I can’t look at myself in the mirror if I don’t beat this pathetic team tonight” player on the Spurs. Case in point, last night vs the Wolves.

    I love Manu’s game to death. It’s not a bad thing for an ulter competitive guy on your team. In fact, most fans would say it’s a good thing.

  • Len

    @ TheBeatCounselor

    Yes, that was a great conversation.

    I wouldn’t go so far in condemning MJ or Kobe and praising Tim. Manu is cut from a similar cloth to both of those guys. Guess who Timmy loves to play with the most? Manu.

    Being uber competitive is not a bad thing, imo. It is what seperates alot of these professional athletes, the “will to win”.

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