Thursday, November 1, 2007
Leave Kobe Alone!
If I owned a video camera, I might be inclined to make one of those Chris Crocker style You Tube posts, my face streaked with tears, screaming, “Leave Kobe alone!”
Yes, I am a Kobe Bryant fan. I realize this is a bit incongruous, what with me being a liberal and a feminist and all. (As one friend wryly put it when he heard of my fandom: “I didn’t see that coming.”) It helps to know that I’ve was a Kobe fan from waaaaaaaay back. I remember seeing him on the Arsenio Hall Show—yes, that far back—when he was just a teenager. I thought he was absolutely adorable, with his long, lean physique, those high cheekbones, his quick, elfin smile, and his perfectly formed tiny ears (no, I don’t have a thing for ears—I have a thing for Kobe’s ears)—and, of course, I was totally charmed when he spoke Italian. (For those who don’t know, Kobe was raised in Italy before his family moved to Philadelphia.) It goes without saying that I loved the sheer physical gifts he possessed on the court: the way he moved like a gazelle, defended like a man possessed, and flew through the air, like, well, a thing that flies through the air.
Eventually, I came to love more than that—his preternatural work ethic, his fierce competitiveness, the polite way he submitted to every post-game (or half time) interview. If you’re a sports fan, the one thing you hope is that your favorite athlete will give it his all, every night, on the court. On that front, Kobe has never let me down.
The Colorado incident? Yeah, I admit I was disappointed. And scared for Kobe. But no one knows what happened in that hotel room, and the issue has been resolved legally (they settled out of court) and personally (Kobe is still married to Vanessa and last year, they welcomed a second daughter), so I don’t feel it’s my place to judge.
But this giant preamble gets me back to the real reason for this post. As it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Kobe is on the verge of being traded, the nation's insane ambivalence over Kobe has gone into overdrive. I’ve never seen a sports star so equally adored and reviled as Kobe Bryant, often for the same things (with the exception, I suppose, of Barry Bonds, but lord knows, Bonds brought that upon himself). I think it’s unfair. I think it’s hypocritical—massively hypocritical—to vilify Kobe and I want to give my take on the myths versus the reality of one Kobe Bean Bryant.
Myth #1: Kobe drove Shaq out of L.A.
This myth is close on the heels of another myth: That Shaq is this big, lovable teddy bear of a guy and Kobe is this weird, sociopathic outcast. Don’t get me wrong, I like Shaq. But I would say he’s a teddy bear when everyone is worshipping him and adoring him—which is to say, most of the time—and more like a Grizzly Bear when he’s being challenged. The truth is, it’s easy for Shaq to maintain this happy-go-lucky persona when no one dares to confront him. Kobe was a little immature in wanting to be The Man on a team where Shaq was already the established superstar (or maybe he was just acting his age—after all, Kobe was just 19 when he joined the Lakers). But as Kobe matured, he was more than willing to play with Shaq, he was simply frustrated with Shaq’s atrocious free throw shooting, his lackadaisical (to put it mildly) approach to fitness, and the cute little tricks he pulled, like waiting until right before the season to get toe surgery. (Shaq missed a huge chunk of the season—avoidable, if he’d only had the surgery sooner). Kobe truly could not believe that someone as brilliantly talented as Shaq squandered his own gifts with laziness and seeming indifference. This, no doubt, offended Kobe to the core.
Did Kobe drive Shaq out of L.A.? Well, I do think Kobe told management that he didn’t want to play with the big fella anymore. But clearly, Shaq felt the same way (who could forget Shaq’s cruel proclamation that the “whole team is here” when Kobe was fighting for his life in Colorado?). There was no way these two men were going to coexist anymore on the court. It was always a case of pick one or the other— not because Kobe wanted it, but because both men wanted it. Quite simply, the team picked Kobe over Shaq. Kobe was younger, more popular, and—yes—a harder worker.
Myth #2: Shaq’s great relationship with Dwayne Wade in Miami proves that the conflict in L.A was all Kobe’s fault.
For starters, Shaq came into Miami in the best shape of his life, thus demonstrating how fit he could be, if he ever actually bothered. Also, Dwayne is a smart kid: He defers to Shaq, just the way Shaq likes it. Dwayne may indeed be the MVP of that team, but he acts like a dutiful kid brother, a sidekick, a role Kobe was never willing to play (why should he?). To me, it was quite telling that, when Dwayne Wade won the MVP of the 2006 finals, it was Shaq who insisted on handing him the trophy. It was like Shaq was saying, “I allowed this to happen.” Somehow, even when D-Wade wins MVP, it’s all about Shaq.
Myth #3: Kobe brought this upon himself
There’s this incredible schadenfreude with Kobe, now that the Lakers are mired in mediocrity. The conventional wisdom goes: You see, you wanted to be The Man: How you like it now?
But I don’t think it was unreasonable for Kobe to think that the Lakers, one of the wealthiest franchises in all of sports, would build around him. How could he have known that they would instead give him a big kid with years-down-the-road potential (Andrew Bynum), another center who is a legendary draft day bust (Kwame Brown), a talented but injury prone sidekick with absolutely no competitive fire (Lamar Odom), and the worst starting point guard in the league (Smush Parker)? (Okay, they finally got rid of Smush. Ironically, he is now Jason William’s backup in Miami.) And how could he have known that when the opportunity came to win and win now—in the form of Jason Kidd, one of the preeminent point guards in the league—the Lakers would say no because they were unwilling to part with Bynum, who represented (possibly) winning down the road?
Has Kobe been patient? Yes, for 3 long years. Has Kobe been loyal? Extremely: He hadn’t complained a peep until this summer’s tirade. Has Kobe carried the team on his back? Seems to me that when you lead the league in scoring two years running—including one 81 point explosion and 4 games of 50-plus points in a row—just to make the playoffs, you’re doing more than your fair share.
I don’t blame Kobe one bit for wanting out. I’m just surprised it took him this long.
Myth #4: Kobe is a ballhog
Okay, that’s not really a myth. He kinda is a ballhog. But here’s the reality. We saw on Team USA that Kobe is more than willing to be a defensive stopper and offensive facilitator when surrounded by talent. Obviously, that was a unique situation: No team in the league is going to surround him with the likes of LeBron, Carmelo, and Jason Kidd. But I do believe that Kobe has matured to the point where he is more than willing to give up the rock, if only he had anybody to pass it to. The thing that bugs me is, Kobe is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. If he takes 35 shots, he’s a ballhog. If he tries to be a playmaker, making passes to teammates who whiff left and right, he’s accused of being a wise guy, trying to prove a point. Witness LeBron James, who had the temerity to pass the ball to a teammate in last year’s Eastern Conference finals: He was excoriated for not being man enough to take the shot. Likewise, Kevin Garnett, who is often accused of being too unselfish. It seems in this game, we encourage our superstars to be selfish, and then accuse them of being egomaniacs when they are. See? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. A final point: Even in those youthful years when he was fighting for "Who's the Man"-hood with Shaq, he still led the team in assists. (It’s true, look it up.) Imagine, then, if this newly matured Kobe had someone to pass too. I guarantee that he would. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance to prove me right.
Myth #5: Kobe owes the Lakers something
This is the latest line coming from the Lakers front office and parroted by columnists at ESPN: The Lakers stood by Kobe during the Colorado incident, picked him over Shaq, so therefore, he should return the loyalty. Ha! Double ha! Basketball is a business, people. The Lakers didn’t stand by Kobe because of some paternal love that Jerry Buss feels for Kobe. It’s because Kobe is the Lakers’ greatest asset. He fills the seats, he puts them on national TV, he wins the games, he moves the merchandise. What could the Lakers have possibly gained in renouncing him? Of course, they supported him! It didn’t hurt that, during those insane weeks when Kobe was flying straight from the legal court to the basketball court, he put up sick numbers—obviously, basketball has always been Kobe’s release, the place where he can clear his head and demonstrate his uncanny focus. If the Lakers really loved Kobe, they would’ve surrounded him with talent. They would’ve pulled the trigger on that trade for Jason Kidd. It’s as simple as that.
Okay, I’m done.