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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Kobe Enigma


Kobe's enigmatic personality leaves everyone wanting to know exactly what goes on behind that stare... What's that? Not everyone? Well me at least.

I remember reading the comments by Phil Jackson crawling across the ESPN Bottom Line, and rejecting them Dikembe Mutombo style (complete with the finger wag).

There was no way that the guy frozen in time hyperslamming on Michael Olowakandi in the poster on my bedroom door was "uncoachable."


I remember reading in disbelief passages from Jackson's book
The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul that he refused to return to the Lakers for the 2004-05 season if Kobe was still there.

I remember finding it ironic that Phil Jackson had a soul patch. It's just so fitting.

I refused to acknowledge anything from his memoir, though. What was so "uncoachable" about Kobe Bryant? He'd help deliver a three-peat. No one else seemed to care. I watched the media turn cold toward him. They became despondent toward his incredible talent.

The world collectively grilled and sauteed Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak for letting Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson move on to ensure Kobe remained a Laker. Entering his prime or not, they said, he wasn't worth it.

This all went over my head. A 25-year old 28-5-5 guy with three rings was getting ready to enter the prime of his career. Meanwhile Shaq, 31 at this point, had missed 15 games each of the last three seasons. He had played in over 800 career games (not including the playoffs) and his sub-50% free throw shooting was just as much to blame for the Lakers five-game dismantlement by the Pistons in the '04 Finals as was Kobe's poor shooting from the floor. Why view this decision as an exercise in tomfoolery?

I'll say it. I was a Kobe apologist. I just didn't get the whole story.

But does the rest of the world get it either?

• • •

I remember one of the first occasions when I watched Kobe play. It was a playoff game in 2000, and I was watching my new favorite player control the court.

I couldn't believe how much fun I had watching the guy play. It was like the first time I saw D-2 every time I watched him. He possessed a paramount level of confidence and delight in his game. He had this penchant for- to be cliché - making something routine seem incredible. To this effect, I remember the first breakaway I saw him get. Marv Albert just said, "Look out!" He didn't do a windmill or a reverse. He just jumped from about 5 feet out and slammed it home, throwing the crowd into tumult.

Now, I say, "He just jumped from about 5 feet out and slammed it home," in the same sense that you would say Sean Penn "just acted effeminate" in Milk or Bob Dylan just picked on an acoustic guitar and played some harmonica.

To say Kobe "just did" anything is an understatement of Bill Belichickian standards.

Watching him play was like watching a 20-year old Louis Armstrong with a trumpet in his hands. It was one of those rare opportunities where you got to see a person absolutely in love with the thing that they do better than anyone else in the world. I'll say it: at the time, Jordan comparisons were fair. He had that once-in-a-generation swagger. He had the combo of transcendent talent, drive, and competitiveness.

Most importantly though, he seemed to be in control of his own stardom. He was drafted as a 17-year old, played in a huge market under high expectations and not only thrived, but excelled. No one could confidently say exactly how high his ceiling was. Each year, he went out and got better and better offensively, helped contribute to NBA Championships and became one of the best wing defenders in the league.

I was infatuated with Kobe the Person.

I watched him routinely make game-deciding shots in the playoffs, play with an unparalleled competitive edge (of anyone in the league, at least), and demoralize opponents like B-Rabbit.
He did it all so systematically too. So naturally. He was never intimidated by the stakes. And again, to reiterate (because this will be a theme), he seemed like he was under complete control of himself. Sure he had hot-headed meltdowns every now and then- all athletes do. But it seemed like he had his life in perspective.

If there's anything that could always be said for Kobe Bryant, it's that he gets the NBA. Not just basketball, but the league. He knows its history. He knows how the system works. He knew young. He knew what it would take to land himself among the all-time greats. He knew how to get there.

It was incredible to watch.

Seriously.

• • •

A few weeks ago, I was on ESPN.com mulling over Kobe's career stats.

This behavior shouldn't distress you. I do this sort of thing all the time. Wait, that scares you a little bit more? Well, moving on...

I was looking at his early career stats, and I took notice of a trend. Here are Kobe's points, rebounds, and assists (on per game totals) for his first seven years in the league:
  • 96-97: 7.6/1.9/1.3
  • 97-98: 15.4/3.1/2.5
  • 98-99: 19.9/5.3/3.8
  • 99-00: 22.5/6.3/4.9
  • 00-01: 28.5/5.8/5.0
  • 01-02: 25.2/5.5/5.5
  • 02-03: 30.0/6.9/5.9
If you don't notice a trend then I might need to send the numbers to you in braille.

Save for his slight regression in the 2001-02 season (but who's honestly crying over 25 ppg and another title?), Kobe's numbers were growing each year and- here's the best part- he was only 24 after the 2002-03 season. Make whatever arguments you like, he was the best all-around player in the league at this point (All apologies to Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett).

Now let's go ahead and put the 2002-03 season under the microscope. For all of you playing along in your Official Kobe Bryant Timeline, this was the season before The Break-Up. It was also the season before the missing factor. We'll get to that later, but let's get back to the season. Very quietly, the Lakers aged quite a bit after their third title in 2002. Shaq turned 30 that season, and missed 15 games. Fellow starters Robert Horry and Rick Fox were also in their 30's.

In fact, the rotation guys that had played roles in the three-peat (Shaq, Devean George, Fox, Slava Medvedenko, Brian Shaw and Samaki Walker) combined to miss 82 games. The only guys that stayed healthy the entire season were Derek Fisher, Horry, and Kobe.

With all of those guys missing time, Kobe set (then) season highs in points, assists, rebounds, and minutes played.

In 2001-02, he shot a paltry 25% from behind the three-point arc. In 2002-03, not only did he increase his 3-point field goal percent to 38, but he jumped from .4 3-pointers made per game to 1.5.

He also set career highs in steals at 2.2 and blocked nearly a shot a game.

In summary, allow me to repeat myself: Kobe had transformed himself into the best all-around player in the league. Some people would like to tell you otherwise, but the numbers don't lie. He carried an injured group of veterans through an 11-19 start to 52 wins in the robustly-talented Western Conference- which was just as competitive then as it is now.

He finished 3rd in MVP voting in a year where you could make an argument that he deserved it. Well, get used to the theme people, because Kobe is the NBA's version of Robert Downey Junior (Get him a freaking Oscar already!).

There are some other things worth looking at from the season.

Kobe also set career highs in chippy retorts to Phil Jackson, number of times sitting on the end of the bench and not talking to anyone, and number of appearances of the patented Kobe Bryant "I refuse to get you any more open looks because you missed the first one" face.

The wear and tear of carrying a team for the first time, culminating with a loss in the second round of the playoffs to the Spurs, defaced Kobe. Watching him play wasn't like watching the international soccer player earning his first cap each time he went out anymore.

He began losing trust in his teammates.

He began ordering the Kobe Bryant Special (deciding in the fourth quarter that he would either win the game by himself or shoot the team out of the game) on a more frequent basis than Cracker Barrel regulars order coffee and oatmeal.

In short, he was under the false pretense that he had become "The Man" on the Lakers, and that Shaq and company needed to follow accordingly.

Was this somewhat founded? Sure. Go ahead and re-read the paragraph that summed up the Lakers' 02-03 season. Kobe upped his game in every aspect and helped keep the Lakers afloat while everybody else missed time.

But, in a big way, this was a bad omen for the future championship aspirations for the Lakers. As we would soon find out, Shaq was far from the end of his career, and as long as he was there Phil Jackson would continue to run the offense through him.

Now, with Kobe putting together his complete game- including his natural alpha dog mentality- the Lakers' Zen was thrown for a loop.

We'll call this Subplot number 1.

At this point, I was like Jack in Titanic when Rose was about to jump off of the back of the boat. I was involved. I couldn't just walk away. You jump, I jump.

The things that I loved about watching young Kobe play (the joy, the afro, the free spirit) had dissipated and been replaced by poisonous body language and that young-Jordanesque I'll-seriously-punch-you-in-the-face-if-you-take-another-shot-when-I-have-a-point-guard-posted-up mentality.

But I was too ensnared.
I was involved.
I couldn't just walk away.

• • •

A championing tune was playing over the speakers in the Palace at Auburn Hill as confetti fell like acid rain on the Lakers' ego, and the five future Hall of Famers- Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson- walked into the locker room with body language that plainly said "One word and I will devour your first born."

How did we arrive here?
Good question.
Four Hall of Fame starters. A coach with 9 rings.

Going into the season 2003-04 NBA Season, the question wasn't "Will the Lakers win the Finals?", it was "Will they win 70 games?" or "Will they even lose a playoff game?"

Perhaps what we should've been asking was "How many times will one of the four stars jack up the first look they get and then jog down the court while avoiding eye contact with the rest of the team?" Seriously, you couldn't have gotten worse chemistry if Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie starred as Truvy and Shelby in a Steel Magnolias remake.

Before the season even began, it had began. Kobe had to arrive late to training camp, and Shaq kept making references to the entire team being there - even though Kobe wasn't yet.

Kobe later struck back by saying that Shaq showed up at camp overweight and out of shape.
Shaq said Kobe should look to be more of a passer until his knee healed, and Kobe said he didn't like being told how to play guard by a 7'1" center.

Yowza! We saw some potential for trouble during the 2002-03 season, but now all of a sudden it was like a waterbed with 7 holes in it - every time you plug one problem, it just made another one worse.

So, how did we get here?

Well we know subplot number 1 involved Kobe taking his game to new heights and being the best player on the Lakers for a year. We knew that he had become a little less gregarious with his teammates.

But this? Allowing himself to get publicly caught up in a petty feud with a teammate? There's some documentation that lends to the idea that this was brewing during the 02-03 season or before, but not to this level.

So what provoked that raise in Kobe's ego from "becoming more negative" to cancerous? How did he go from that Jordan-like persona of competitiveness and egotism to a twisted, spiteful malfeasance that would eventually send his Hall of Fame coach and teammates packing?

I mean that team seriously cleared out after the Finals debacle. Shaq? Gone. Payton and Malone? Bounced and retired, respectfully. Fox and Horry? Deuces. Derek Fisher? Peaced out. Horace Grant? Donezo (spl?).

No one could stand to be around him.

So again, how did we get here?

How did, in two years, Kobe's persona transform from purely entertaining and boyish to cancerous and disadvantageous? How did he evolve from the next Jordan to the next Latrell Sprewell?

The answer lies in simple math, friends.
Actually, simple Algebra...Ok, the answer is in algebra:

We've all learned that a+b=c, right?

Ok, then let's qualify the 2002-03 season and all of it's happenings as "a" and the 2003-04 season with all of its fall-outs, media assassinations, and so on "c." So "c" is the sum of a+b.

But what about the missing, uh, letter thingy?
Variable! That's it! It's called a variable! Suck it eighth grade!

What about that mysterious "b-variable?" That factor that only allows variable "a" (2002-03 events) to get to variable "c" (2003-2004 events) if it is present and adds its great effect?

Alright, admit it. You want to read on.

• • •

I used to think each sports writer and basketball personality had their own Kobe anecdote
that explained their hatred for him. I just assumed they all had one of those "I was in the Lakers' locker room after a loss one night and Kobe just sat in the corner alone while looking at his teammates with one of those how-the-eff-are-you-guys-on-my-team faces"-type stories.

And maybe they do. But I synthesize that those anecdotes don't tell the whole story.

Think about it people. Athletes throughout history have been revered and enshrined because of their game-breaking intensity, competitiveness, and sometimes-penchant for being volatile.

Here's the deal. I will never compare anything about Kobe to Jordan except for his persona and drive. Comparing them talent wise, you offend Kobe by overrating him, and offend Jordan by comparing to a lesser player to him.

It's done.
Forget it.

Kobe will never be on Jordan's level of talent, and I would hope that everyone realizes that any person that tells you otherwise is just trying to spur on debate.

There was a time. I said it earlier. During those first seven seasons- before Kobe hit his ceiling- the Jordan comparisons were fair. But he didn't ever get there.

Why bring this up?
I'll tell ya (wink).

It's inevitable that comparisons will be made. Their style of play is similar. They are about the same build. They've both flourished in the same position in Phil Jackson's triangle offense. They're both competitive to a fault. They've both hit game winners in the playoffs.

But we all know that ultimately, nearly nothing here is analogous...

Except that whole competitive to a fault thing.

Sports media and personalities alike kill Kobe for shooting mind bullets at Sasha Vujacic when he hoists a contested 3-pointer up 5 seconds into the shot clock.

But Jordan seriously punched Steve Kerr in the face at practice one time because he didn't give him the ball. Punched him in his face! With his fist! And everyone just attributes that to his undying fire and competitive nature. They've twisted it into a strange sort of compliment to his persona.

So why this double standard? I don't have tunnel vision. I don't mind telling you that part of it is success. Sure Jordan used that fire to win 6 championships with his own team. Tony Reali, score a few points for that argument. It's commendable. Seriously, it is. But that's only part of the story.

Remember that whole equation thing?

• • •

So there I was on the day I was looking at Kobe's early career stats. Sitting at Memorial Union, I began creating a blog in my mind about how the sexual assault case in the summer of 2003 took such a toll on Kobe's life that it put a stunt in the development of his play (no pun intended).

I had statistical backing. You see it too. After steadily getting better and better until the 2002-03 season, his field goal percent fell 43% over the next two years. It was painfully obvious: he'd obviously lost a lot of that swagger.

I began writing the post in my mind. Being the infatuated party that I am, I was ready to prove to the world that Kobe was once on pace to become the next Jordan.

To refresh myself on the facts, I went to the Wikipedia page on the sexual assault case (Read at your own risk. Seriously. There's not a trace of sarcasm in my voice. Parts are pretty sick). Revisiting the whole ordeal was distressing. I was 14 when everything happened. Hence the confused notion I portrayed for myself at the start of this post. I was too young to understand the enormity of the proceedings.

In my mind I always just viewed the whole things as just a big distraction. Obviously, an unstable girl had sex with Kobe Bryant and woke up the next morning seeing dollar signs.
My guess was that she had dreamed in cartoons that night of herself being like Uncle Scrooge in Duck Tales and having a diving board into her giant pool of money.

That was a fair assessment for a 14-year old.

Hey Reali, score a few points for 14-year old me!
(From within) "Thanks!!"
But ignorance is bliss.

• • •

When I got the the end of the Wikipedia page, I was sick to my stomach. I'd read more details than I'd ever needed about the case. Things I didn't know. Things I wouldn't have understood when I was younger anyway.

But the facts weren't that "out there" when it was all happening. A lot of the details about the case were - as you could probably imagine in a sexual assault case - too mature for a station owned by Disney.

So I wasn't the only one that didn't catch all the details. Honestly, how many people would you imagine went that extra mile to find out everything? I'm sure there were some, but I wager that most sports fans that lacked a vested interest in the matter went out of their way to get the entire scoop.

I was about to get it.

You've surely been to Wikipedia before. At the end of each post (the legit ones at least), there are citations. It was like reading Mein Kamph - I couldn't stop reading more, as much as it distressed me.

I stumbled across what set this entire post into motion.

Do you ever have a question, get on the internet to answer it, and then just find 20 more questions in the process of trying to answer the first one?

Cue me in this situation.

I stumbled across the questioning of Bryant by the Eagle, Colorado police investigator hired to look into the sexual assault charges by a young lady against him.

Gather yourself here. I'm talking about an interview of Bryant - at most - twelve hours removed from the encounter he had with the girl.

(Here's some quick exposition for anyone that is lost right now: Bryant was getting knee surgery in Colorado and staying at a resort by himself in Eagle. He was married. He began flirting and eventually took a 19-year old hotel worker up to his bedroom and had sex with her. The two parties vary on exactly what transpired, but the next morning the girl went to the police department and claimed she had been raped. That gets us to where we are now.)

I don't know that I've ever read anything more surreal in my life.

As I dazed through the testimony, the walls came bursting down. Everything came into focus- not necessarily in the way you'd like.

In that testimony, Kobe rendered himself a disgusting human being. Not a rapist, but a demeaning, filthy being. Again, I'm not kidding when I say don't read anything about the inner parts of the case unless you have a high level of tolerance for incredibly adult conversations. Seriously.

He drops f-bombs like a drunk, affronted Real World cast member. He talks very explicitly about his sexual encounters and preferences. He offers to pay off whoever he needed to to make sure the story didn't go public. He talked openly about having another mistress that he often had sex with - despite having a wife and 6-month old at home. He talks about masturbation.
This is all stuff that came out in the first questioning of him. I couldn't allow myself to read court documents or anything else. I was too shocked by the first thing I read.

Changing gears, you need to remember that this was before Wikipedia. You could argue that this was before people knew how to use the internet to get any answer about anything ever. The average person knew little about the entrails of the case. We knew the basics.

But, do you know who did read everything though - largely because they had no choice?

Can I get someone to buzz in and say "Who are America's media personnel?"
• • •

If you want to know where the media's divine hatred for Bryant comes from, look no further than the case they had no choice but to cover.

They had to read every disgusting detail of the entire case, to learn first hand exactly the type of person that Kobe Bean Bryant was. They probably didn't publish most of it - what publication would include details of the involved themes?

But what they learned couldn't be unlearned.
There's a whole litany of occurrences and details that send hatewaves of Kobe Bryant from the world of press to the world of readers. (See the 05-06 and 06-07 MVP voting. I'll never let it go.)
They've created a trickle-down effect that any Republican would marvel over.
To the uninformed public, Kobe Bryant is just a egotistical ball hog that rips his teammates for not giving him the ball on every possession. We're made to think that because there's a bias against his character, against what's at his very core. What we hear about his Bad Teammate Syndrome is really just a translation of a deeper emotion- disgust.

Because they've all been forced to see it.

So let's go back to our pressing issues.

We all know what the b-variable is now. Not only did that entire case change what the world thought about Kobe Bryant, it changed what Kobe Bryant thought about himself. When his teammates didn't come immediately to his aid, he reacted the way you'd expect a person with an ego the size of Barry Bond's dome to react when feeling self-conscious: he became defensive. You can't blame his teammates for not going straight to him. Details were scattered. But you couldn't rationalize that to him.

He felt abandoned.

He reacted the only way his personality would yield. He threw his teammates under the bus. He told the media that he should've done what Shaq does and pay off women that he had sex with. He accused Karl Malone of hitting on his wife.

He made it a hell of a lot easier to turn the world against him.
He let his game suffer. He stunted its growth. He made being the next Jordan obsolete.
He was no longer the best player in the game. (at the time, at least)
He was wholly wrecked.

• • •

So what was the final toll from this entire - for lack of a better term - ordeal?

In short, it was ubiquitous.

If you look at our a+b=c equation, imagine that c=109,284,750,385, a=3, and b (the sexual assault case, in case you missed it)=109,284,750,382.

In retrospect, it's easy to tell that Kobe's changing attitude in 2002-03 season (variable a) was just natural progression. Eventually he had to take on his own team, and that was the beginning stages.

The sexual assault case did the most damage (understatement alert!!!). Forget that Kobe was acquitted because a series of de-legitimizing testimonies and statements culminated with the girl refusing to testify - thus throwing the case out.

The damage was done. Things couldn't be unlearned. Kobe couldn't forget what he had done to himself. He emerged a shielded, defensive quagmire. He stopped developing as a player. His relationships with his teammates were destroyed because he was looking for a vice, looking for someone else to blame for something else.

The media hated Kobe for what he made them see. Forget his basketball persona. They'd been forced to watch a core of divisive actions and character-destroying statements. They were there for it. The fact that he didn't like passing the basketball just gave them a medium for their new-found disgust.

They haven't reneged since.

I hear what you're saying. "But Jared, Kobe won the MVP in 2008."

Yes he did. But they had no choice. Eventually some humanity in the form of karma and basketball integrity forced him to win one. That'll be all for him. Mark my words.

The NBA and MVP voters alike have said "Here Kobe. Here's your MVP. Now get out of LeBron and Dwayne's way."

• • •

You could argue that things have improved. The case seems to have dissipated some. But the foundation remains. It always will. Ask Ray Lewis.

Sure the dropped endorsements have come back. Sure he's "a better teammate."

But the world will forever view Kobe as an enigma. As a poor man's Michael Jordan that looks "coached" (copy-write Bill Simmons) in interviews. He'll forever be viewed a selfish talent that tried to throw his teammates under the bus. As a guy always fighting to be the best, but never viewed as it.

I don't think he'd have it any other way.




2 comments:

Erich Tamola said...

Great read, Jared!

Anonymous said...

I made it 1/3 of the way through this post. I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel when you said "in summary," but how naive I was!

I was trying to think of witty comments to show that I somewhat know what you're talking about and all I could come up with is "Ole Jelly Bean must have taught him well!"

In summary (and this is actually a summary), I MADE IT 1/3 WAY THROUGH! HUZZAHHHH!!!



-Leann

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