Kobe – A Re-examination

Since 2001 I have been one of the most anti-Kobe Bryant sports fans, and it was not even close to me liking him at all.  Now though, things have changed – but not for obvious reasons.

            The reasons I dislike Kobe are myriad and very straightforward: firstly, I did not like the way his selfishness destroyed the Lakers title dynasty.  Kobe was going to be a great player, of that there was little doubt, but his skills and those of Shaq complemented each other perfectly.  They won three straight titles together, and had they continued to play on the same team, it is highly likely the Lakers would have won at least three more had they been able to stay together.  When the Lakers broke up and the team chose to keep Kobe over Shaq (who at the time was the most dominant player in the league by a wide margin) and gave up the best coach of all time in Phil Jackson to ensure Kobe’s happiness.  The selfishness Kobe exhibited in ruthlessly destroying his own team, and they were gutted until 2008, was only matched by Jackson throwing him under the bus in his book The Last Season.  By now it is clear that his arrogance had killed the team, not any manipulations by Shaq or Jackson.  Kobe alone thought he was good enough to keep the team playing at a high level, and he was definitely not ready to be the alpha dog especially AC and the destruction of his reputation.  What he did, in callously destroying his legacy was shocking – we knew athletes were selfish and arrogant but never before had it played out in such a dramatic way.  The floundering Lakers were quickly contrasted by Shaq’s new team, the Miami Heat who went on to win the title over the Dallas Mavericks in the next couple of years while the Lakers were stuck in 9th seed purgatory.  At this time, Kobe was the most hated player in any league, period.  The only place he was ever cheered was in LA, and even then fans had to pretend he had not destroyed their team.  Kobe it seemed, thought the key to greatness was simply statistics and for a while he seemed destined to go down as a modern day Wilt, who vacillated between a team player and a gunner whenever it suited his needs.  He even seemed to lose “best player of the generation” to Tim Duncan who quietly became the best power forward the game has ever seen while Kobe was desperately trying to get personal accolades at the expense of winning seasons. 

            Then, suddenly, he got it.  He knew what mattered: six titles.  The Lakers rehired Phil Jackson after Kobe made peace with him and then stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies (easily one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA) and Kobe was suddenly playing defense for the first time in his career and becoming more efficient with the ball.  The Lakers were relevant again and won a title; then lost to the Celtics, then won another.  Kobe had 5 rings and was desperate for a sixth when he was surpassed again.  LeBron became the clear alpha dog, and the story, he was such an all encompassing player and personality that Kobe was quietly flying under the radar.  All of this allowed his image to be rehabbed, and suddenly, a generation of kids was being born who only knew Kobe as a guy for whom winning was everything.  They had no idea about Colorado, or how he killed the Lakers for seven seasons – all they saw was the player he had become: a guy who maximized his skills and could do almost anything on the court.  His selfishness hurt him, both in terms of personal achievements (he won only 1 MVP Award) and titles (again, he left something behind when he broke up the Lakers).  Was he still a selfish player?  Absolutely: he shot 6 for 24 in Game Seven with the title on the line and nearly ended up handing a second title to KG and the Celtics.  Another thing people suddenly loved about him was the fact he seemed like a throwback, a hard-nose, old-school player who may not have been the most athletic guy around but was capable of suddenly catching fire and hitting threes or a fade away with two or sometimes three defenders draped all over him.  Was his ceiling ever as high as that of LeBron or MJ?  No, it never was, he simply lacked certain skills – passing for one, but when he needed to, he could score like no one else in the game. 

            By this point, when he was desperate for another ring, and LeBron had gone to Miami to team up with Wade and Bosh, things finally turned for Kobe.  Even if you hated him, you had to respect his comeback.  Few other players in the league would have been able to turn perceptions about him around.  Few others would have been able to rob another team blind and get another superstar to help win more titles.  Few others would be able to shoot 6 for 24 and still win MVP.  Will Kobe win another title?  Probably not as the Alpha Dog, which leads to an interesting historical conundrum: he won 5 titles and was Alpha Dog outright for 2 and maybe co-alpha dog for another which does not put him anywhere near the MJ level (6 titles as Alpha Dog) and might just tie him with LBJ for Alpha Dog titles when all is said and done (Duncan for the record has 4 Alpha Dog titles).  When the Lakers got Dwight Howard, it seemed like Kobe was destined to face LeBron and the Heat in the Finals, until he and Dwight tried to kill each other ten seconds into the season and the whole thing became a complete nightmare that ended with Kobe tearing his Achilles and Dwight booking it for the Rockets (Kobe spent the whole season trying to prove he was still alpha dog and basically killed the Lakers chances…again through his selfishness.  Dwight was not the player he thought he was, nor was he made to be teammates with Kobe).  Even after an injury that would have ended most players’ careers, Kobe tried to come back, only to get injured again simply because his body was not fully healed and may never be again. 

I went to a game in LA, and it was one of the toughest experiences to stomach, as the Kobe love and “he got fouled!” on every possession was hard to take.  However, he won that game.  He won a lot of games.  Kobe is a player who demands respect, even if you do not like him.

            A whole generation of kids is now 11 and 12 years old, and the only Kobe they know is the one for whom winning is everything, and who demands everything from his teammates and a player who comes back from injuries that seem impossible to return from.  He is simply Kobe, scoring machine, defensive nobody.  The innocence of these kids makes Dwight Howard and LeBron into the bad guys, and has Kobe’s team letting him down.  Sadly this stops them from recognizing the brilliance of LeBron James and the fact that none of them will ever see a better player in their lifetimes than him.  Kobe has put his past away to the point that for most of the younger generation, it simply does not exist; all that remains is the fact he was a winner (3 straight titles!) and rarely includes Shaq in the discussion.  Time has been on Kobe’s side and few players have used it more effectively.  Here we have a generation that can enjoy the Kobe of the last ten years without  the prejudice of the past invading their enjoyment.  For them there is no selfishness, just leadership and skill; his arrogance is confidence; his teammate under the bus throwing as…well…guys should always bow down to Kobe.   It is sort of like people in Los Angeles who have decided to pretend that Colorado never happened (not that we know what happened there at all because it has smartly been closed forever) and they choose simply to see the good in one of the most intriguing NBA Stars in history.  Even the most spiteful Kobe hater cannot possibly deny he is one of the seven or eight best basketball players of all time (for the record 1) Jordan; 2) Russell; 3) Kareem; 4) Magic; 5) Bird; 6) Duncan; 7) Kobe; 8) LeBron – to be completely honest, one more title or MVP moves LBJ past Kobe).  Interesting Kobe aside: he only won one MVP Award.  One!  Did he ever even truly own the league or was he simply a guy who had a ceiling and was able to reach and maintain it?

            Can there be a more divisive player in the NBA?  When Jordan retired fans felt there would never be another player like him, now I am certain there will never be another Kobe, a player who divides fans and his career in such an interesting way.  He is a player who young people can view as innocent, because they do not know any better, while the rest of us have to factor in his guilt and the way he left titles on the table.  Is there another player in history whom you can find out one or two things about that can completely change the way you view them?  Certainly no others come to mind.

            Whatever you think of Kobe Bryant, he must be respected.  He is one of the greatest NBA players in history and one of the most complex – a man who has learned the value of winning even as his own ego subverted him and threatened to destroy all of his achievements.  Yet, here he still is, a player who has survived a complicated existence, which would have crushed others and that survival, might be his greatest accomplishment of all. 

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