On the John
Becoming Kobe: The Tale of Kobe Bryant
Originally completed June 15, 2009
I’ve always been fascinated by the reasons basketball fans dislike Kobe Bryant. They’re an interesting bunch, those so-called Kobe Haters, and I say that from experience. Back during the Shaq-Kobe days, I was merciless. I remember calling the Score one autumn night in 2001 and telling radio host Tommy Williams that Kobe and Kurt Warner were the two most overrated athletes in team sports. My Warner beef was more about speaking to the brilliance of Marshall Faulk, but what was curious about my Kobe beef (ha.) was my anger. It was as if I was personally offended by Kobe for not…well, what? What did I want from him? To apologize for his success? To apologize for having fans?
Granted, we were technically correct in pointing out that Kobe had less to do with the Lakers titles than did Shaquille. From 2000 to 2002, only two big men had seasons that neared Shaq’s production: Webber in 2001 and Duncan in 2002. On the other hand, five perimeter players produced a total of ten seasons that matched or exceeded Kobe’s numbers: Iverson ’00-’02, Carter ’00-’01, McGrady/Pierce ’01-’02, Stackhouse ’01. During those three seasons, the Lakers could have replaced Kobe with A.I., Vince, T-Mac, or Paul Pierce and probably would have been OK. A fair assessment…
But what does that have to do with Kobe?
Nothing, of course. It’s simply the nature of organized sports: we hold the game and its history sacred as the gospel, and the new guys must receive our blessing. Roger Maris was bashed for surpassing the Babe and outshining Mantle. Steve Young took crap for taking Montana’s job. Shaq was booed for being named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.
Kobe got the same treatment. First he was guilty of being a Lakers star before reaching Baylor-West-Wilt-Kareem-Magic-Shaq status. Then he was guilty of being pegged The Future before averaging ten points a night. In his second season he was guilty of being voted an All-Star starter before starting on his own team. And then he was guilty of adding the Champion label to his NBA legacy even though his three titles were captained by Shaq.
But none of those individual crimes against the game fully accounts for the anger and irritation Kobe provokes in basketball fans. For that kind of response, there is only one sin.
The search for The Next Michael Jordan began shortly after the real one retired. Even after MJ returned, the League continued pimping its young stars as heirs to His Airness. And one by one, nearly all of them failed.
Zo, Penny, and Grant Hill were all significantly compromised by injuries, though we did get some good years from each. Webber, Richmond, Rice, and Tim Hardaway were healthy enough, but not quite good enough. Kemp, DC, LJ, Kenny Anderson, and Glenn Robinson may have been good enough, but not quite motivated enough.
The decade’s second half produced better, fuller careers, though still there was something missing. Duncan and Ray Allen were difficult for the average fan to appreciate. Garnett, McGrady, Nowitzki, and Pierce were postseason failures. Vince flamed out after a hot start, and while Iverson may have actually been The Answer, neither the NBA nor many of its spectators seemed eager to anoint that kind of person.
Apart from Bryant, the 21 players previously mentioned each failed to live up to Jordan in some way. Production, marketability, championships, health: something was always missing. Hill and Penny were probably the perfect stars to transition fans out of the Jordan Era, two talented, likeable perimeter players who were clean with the law and filled with basketball-humility, always playing as if they did not want to offend the old guard. Injuries took the game from them, took them from us.
Curiously, most NBA fans did not seem to mind that an entire generation of potential headliners was underachieving. We had a weird Jekyll and Hyde thing going with that bunch. We clamored for The Next Michael Jordan to fill the Jordan Void, and yet I think we were secretly pleased when each guy couldn’t.
And that’s not necessarily a negative trait on the part of fans. By 1995, we had spent fifteen seasons enjoying the greatest collection of stars the NBA had ever seen. Magic and Bird were legends, Jordan a generational icon, and Olajuwon, Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Thomas, Wilkins, Stockton, Pippen, Drexler, and Robinson were pillars of the game.
Those guys were ours. The younger folks missed it. And Jordan was the king of it all. Watching him play made you special, and the closer you were to him, the greater the feeling that you’d been handed a gift not extended to everyone. Who wants to believe that any mope with a jersey and a contract can saunter in shortly after and duplicate that magic?
Initially, Kobe seemed like another me-first ball-hog, content to ride the wave his predecessors created. He didn’t do much his rookie year—on the court he was remembered for one high (the dunk contest) and one low (shooting 4 of 14 in the final playoff game against Utah with several air balls), while off the court he was already an advertiser’s dream, doing spots for McDonalds, Adidas, Sprite, Spalding, and SportsCenter. And maybe everything would have been fine for Kobe if he’d remained in Charlotte, or gotten injured, or sucked. But he developed his game, became a success, caught some breaks career-wise (his co-arrival with Shaq in ’96, the All-Star voting in ’98, the breakup of the Bulls leading to Phil’s one-year retirement and then his return with the Lakers) and became a superduper star.
His critics complained that he hadn’t “earned it.” And again, technically they were correct: during his first six seasons, the gap between Bryant’s legacy and his actual production was huge. But what was really bothering the Kobe Haters was his relationship with Jordan. Unlike the Other 21, Kobe was not side-stepping Jordan’s legacy, nor was he failing to produce or failing to excite. We asked for a star to fill the Jordan Void, and Kobe actively tried to be that star. We longed to watch Jordan be Jordan for the rest of our days, and Kobe recreated himself in Michael’s image as best he could.
As a result, Bryant fell into a sticky sports catch-22. He was damned for having the nerve to try and be as good as Jordan, and also, somehow, damned for not being as good. He was damned for taking the man’s mannerisms (weird, I admit), and also damned for not producing the exact same career as the Bulls star. He was damned for becoming Champion, and also damned for mooching championships. He was damned for Shaq being shipped, even though the big man was 31 and Number 8 was 25. When Kobe became the NBA’s most dangerous scorer from 2005 to 2007, he was damned for “returning” to his “selfish gunner” habits, even though…
A. …he was sharing the starting lineup with the weak-sauce bunch of Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, a too-young Andrew Bynum, and an underachieving Lamar Odom, and…
B. …his 62 in three quarters and his 81 against the Raptors were two of the finest individual performances in NBA history, efforts that come along once every six years or so, or in the case of the 81, once every Wilt Chamberlain.
Never mind that Jordan’s legend was launched by his 63 in the Garden, or that while people were bashing the gunner Kobe they were celebrating Gilbert Arenas for doing the same. By embracing his inner-Jordan in an outer-way and giving the NBA and its fans exactly what we thought we wanted, Kobe became Public Enemy Number One among NBA purists.
The irony is that he was just like us. I mean, who doesn’t want to be like Mike?
The Jordan Sin, though, wasn’t only about replication. It was, I think, about holding a mirror to our Jordan Experience and exposing certain truths we would have rather ignored.
A recent Rick Morrissey column was a primo example. Morrissey points out that Kobe patterned himself after Jordan, and thus cannot be viewed on his own terms. Which is mostly true. But he also gets down on Bryant for being unnatural:
“Jordan was as packaged as they come, yet he came across as natural. He starred in Space Jam, a movie with cartoon characters, for goodness’ sake. If there’s anything cute and cuddly about Kobe in real life, it’s because a handler has scripted it that way.”
Morrissey is doing here what most people (myself included) did throughout Jordan’s career: he is presenting and discarding a flaw in the same breath in order to maintain the Jordan Illusion. “Jordan was as packaged as they come, yet he came across as natural.” Right…because he was “as packaged as they come.” He was different from Bryant not because he was packaged, but because he was first. Because he changed the rules for marketing athletes, and because we loved him and desired his “perfection.”
When it comes to phony personas, Michael was the genuine article. We wanted to ride the ride because we’d never been on it before. In the process we were willing to mythologize, rationalize, or plum ignore his flaws: his early selfish play, his gambling, his chronicled physical fights with teammates, his chronicled verbal abuse towards everyone (from Jerry Krause to Kwame Brown), his role in sneaker prices causing kids to kill each other, and his adultery. Sure, there were critics (after Jordan’s second retirement, Michael Crowley wrote a fantastic essay all about Jordan’s downside) but the critics never told us anything we did not already know. Our man Mike was simply above it all.
And so were the rest of them, despite plenty of known social blemishes. Bird, Malone, and Pippen fathered children out of wedlock. Magic cheated on his wife with a gajillion women. Barkley heaved a man through a window and accidentally spit on a young girl at a game. (He was trying to spit on someone else, if that’s an excuse.) Stockton milked his good guy image despite often being singled out as one of the league’s dirtiest players.
Still, they were our guys.
Now, I want to be clear: I love Michael Jordan as a player, as well as the rest from the Dream Team era. And since I don’t know any of them personally, loving them as players is the highest compliment I can give. Aside from murder, rape, or other violent crimes, a player’s personal life does not affect my respect for his game.
But I think our willingness to go along with the first David Stern star system era soured us to the next one. Perhaps we even released our locked up frustrations with the ’79-’88 draftees on the ’89-’98 draftees, lashing out double time on that second group as a make up. Group 2 became the dark side of Group 1, with Kobe becoming the bizarro Jordan. And where Jordan received only our love, Kobe received only our hate.
Kobe won his 4th ring last night. And you know what? I was happy for the guy.
I was all-Celtics during last year’s Finals. It would have been damn near impossible to top the smile I had during KG’s “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEEEEE!!!” post-game speech. But with 3.4 seconds left on the clock the camera flashed over to Bryant, and I saw a man chewing on his jersey out of nervous excitement, giggling like mad, and then immediately celebrating with teammates when the buzzer buzzed.
Despite his Jordan-esque leaping fist pump (old habits, I suppose), this win was about Kobe. Finally, it was about him. Not Shaq, not Mike, not Phil. Just Number 24, finally his own champion. Like Steve Young winning Super Bowl XXIX and asking teammates to “pull the monkey off my back,” Bryant had finally cleared the Shaq hurdle. It was his team, and he led them to a title in fine fashion: 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, one signature performance (Game 1’s 40-8-8 that introduced The Kobe Angry Face), four wins in five games.
And with all that has been said about his phony relationship with his teammates, you had to admit while watching it live that the 2009 Lakers team hug-and-jump was one of the most natural team-fueled championship celebrations we’ve seen in a while. The team that started in 2005 as Kobe and Those Other Guys had really, truly become Kobe And The Guys, from Gasol to Odom to Ariza and definitely to The Little Dagger, Derek Fisher, the man who entered the league with Bryant back in 1996. The two old teammates embraced long and sweet, hugging and swaying and clutching their heads together. And you can say what you want about how Kobe was just playing to the rolling cameras, but the cameras were rolling in ’93 when Jordan’s first post-championship act was to run past his celebrating teammates in order to secure the game ball.
Perhaps Kobe would tell us that he has been chasing Jordan for 13 years, trying his hardest to fill the gap between his career and Jordan’s. Has he “caught” MJ with this championship? I don’t think “catching” Jordan is something that is done. Kobe’s career is a mirror to Jordan’s, not a mirror image.
So forget about Jordan for now. What makes this championship significant is that Kobe has finally caught himself. He has filled the most important gap in his career, the one that truly defined him whether we said so or not: the gap between his legacy and his actual production. He has earned it all. Lakers star. NBA great. Champion. He needed to get even. He has. Now, with the monkey off his back, his journey can begin.
Copyright 2009, jm silverstein
More NBA writing from readjack.com
The first LeBron: More than just a puppet
Learning the Hard Way: the Bad Boy Pistons vs. the Jordan Bulls…the story of Jordan’s coming of age
Moving On: the story of Scottie Pippen’s coming of age
Fantastic Kobe story from Simmons, among the best in the biz