Roughly a year ago, I wrote this hatchet job on Kobe Bryant and his demand to be traded. Well, looks like things have turned out pretty well for him. I still think his actions were tactless and I don’t exactly believe his conversion to unselfishness, but to a certain degree he proved me wrong. No matter his “true” intentions, he’s doing the right things and for that, even a Kobe Hater such as myself can give him some credit. Congrats 2008 MVP! Now, I have a side order of crow to finish off.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Kobe Bryant’s ultimatum by now. If you want the whole story from ESPN Basketball Writer and Kobe BFF Ric Bucher, click here. Essentially, he demanded that the Lakers bring back Jerry West with full GM power or he wants to be traded.
This was the highlight of my sports day yesterday. No person on this planet derives more joy from watching Kobe Bryant and the Lakers struggle than me. Combine that with the fact that watching the phrase “you’ve made your own bed, now lie in it” acted out so perfectly with a spoiled professional athlete is such a rare thing and you’ve got a great story.
I’m a Southern California boy, born and raised, so I know something about the Lakers. They are the premier franchise in LA, and always will be. This team represents the city. But for one reason or another, I’ve never liked them. The tail end of Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers era also served the annointing of Michael Jordan, who was the most popular player in my grade school. Add that to the sudden exertion of independence because we didn’t want to like what our parents did and this made the Chicago Bulls everyone’s favorite team by default. The 1992 Lakers-Bulls Finals is where you can pinpoint the start of a HUGE change in the way fans view the NBA. My generation got into Michael Jordan first and liked his team second, as opposed to the other way around.
I spent the rest of my childhood following the teams of my favorite players like David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning for brief periods of time. I had a major bias toward big men since I always played the 5 on my Rec League teams. Especially the Centers that could block shots, as that was my best quality as a player. And so it went for years, never really having a favorite team and the Lakers firmly entrenched in the Cedric Ceballos/Nick van Exel era. As I got more serious about basketball in high school, I started to watch the game a different way. My focus was on how they played the game: the cuts, the footwork, the plays and the mechanics more than any one player or team.
Enter Kobe Bean Bryant. When he came into the league in 1996, I was immediately drawn to him. A high school kid like me that had the grades/SAT scores for college but took the ultimate challenge going to the NBA. He was more polished and articulate than KG before him, whose rumored low SAT scores were not to be desired by a kid raised on school coming before athletics. Watching Kobe play was exciting and any time he came off the bench, even in garbage time, the city took notice.
But my enthusiasm faded as I watched Kobe airball the Lakers out of the 1998 playoffs and consistently show a lack of effort of the defensive end. For a kid surviving on his HS basketball team with hustle and perseverance, this lack of effort was the ultimate sign of disrespect to the game. In reality, it was just disappointment from a kid that looked up to him so much that he bought his shoes and the realization that I could never play in the NBA no matter how hard I worked. It felt like a personal insult that this guy wasn’t fully utilizing his amazing talent when at the time I probably would’ve sacrificed a loved one for 50% of his ability.
My disregard for Kobe continued as he and Shaq finally took the next step into the NBA elite, winning multiple championships. The city was victorious! LA’s team was back on top and everyone was a Laker fan again. Except me, of course. I watched those Laker games looking for Kobe’s selfishness and laissez-faire defensive attitude to present themselves, my dislike for his game growing stronger with each viewing.
The implosion of the Lakers dynasty was also satisfying, now driven to be a full-fledged Clipper fan by my Kobe-centric distaste for the Lakers. Made all the more sweeter by the fact that KB 8 was a central villain in this mini-soap opera that played out in LA after losing the 2004 NBA Finals to the Pistons.
The remainder of the story should serve as a cautionary tale for NBA superstars that don’t want to find themselves in Kobe’s current position. He ran Phil Jackson and Shaq out of town, leaving the Lakers with a hodge-podge of talented but mismatched 2′s and 3′s and an overwhelmed coaching staff. More importantly that year, and this is nearly unforgiveable for guys, he puzzlingly tried to rat Shaq out during his rape trial, demonstrating a dangerous dark side to this man portrayed as a role model. More than anything, I believe it was selfishness not too different than what he showed every night on the court. He would do anything to keep himself from getting into trouble, which seemed particularly odd and almost cruel in this situation as he didn’t actually rape her.
The first step in Kobe’s bed making was the rehiring of Phil Jackson, who Kobe “learned to appreciate” when he was gone. He only allowed Phil to come back when he knew he couldn’t win with anyone else that was available, after his courtship of Coach K ended. Watching him play as selfishly as ever the next few NBA seasons, attempting to carry his undertalented teams beyond the first round of the playoffs was the next step. He got what he wanted after 2004 and that meant having a sub-par basketball team with no chemistry. He brought this upon himself, I would say as I watched the beloved Lakers fail once again amidst throngs of Laker fans and Kobe apologists that blamed management for it all.
We sit at the crossroads of Kobe Bryant’s career. He’s either attempting to vacate the mess he made of the Lakers with the urgency of a kid that pissed all over the bathroom floor in a nice restaurant or he thinks this public demand is a great negotiation strategy to land the retiring Jerry West. Regardless of the outcome, it’s another instance of Bryant demonstrating the trademark selfishness that’s defined his time in the NBA.
Now, the ball is in the Lakers’ court. I desperately hope they don’t trade Kobe or hire Jerry West, although the latter is more likely to happen. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this whole thing was a well-crafted rouse to harness publicity and allow both sides to save face in LA. If they hire West, management shows they listen to their star player, Kobe shows he’s passionate about playing for a good team and everyone is happy. I do believe Kobe is slippery enough to execute a plan like that demonstrating the irony behind Kobe’s nickname, Black Mamba.
But if it’s not a rouse and the Lakers keep Kobe and decide not to rehire West, everything will have worked perfectly. A selfish pro athlete that got all that he demanded, being kept accountable by the organization that expects him to stay and pick up the pieces of a once elite franchise.
It’s a fitting ending even though it would probably be better suited for an afterschool special than a Hollywood blockbuster.