First, let's get this out of the way; I'm not talking about Kobe Bryant, the man. That guy seems like a bit of a jerk, and I'm not interested in going down that rabbit hole anymore than I care how much of a scumbag Mel Gibson seems like as a person. I'll still watch Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 (they kinda lose me after 2) and enjoy the heck out of it. This isn't about Kobe Bryant the man.
This is about Kobe Bryant the basketball player, the competitor. And in that regard, Kobe's got my respect. And he's probably deserved it for a long time now.
I've been reluctant to admit how good Kobe Bryant really is, and I guess before I start talking about my new-found respect for him, I should get into where my negative biases came from. First and foremost, he's a Laker. There's always been something about the Lakers that I just do not enjoy. They seem shiny, and entitled. When they're great, the media won't leave it alone, and when they're down, the stories all seem to come from a 'they should be really awesome, but they're not. wasupwiththat??' kind of angle. I mean, come on. Maybe its just because Cedric Ceballos and Eddie Jones just aren't that great. Why do I have to hear about it all the time?
(Yes, I understand that Laker fans probably hate a lot of the same things about the Celtics, and yes, I understand that fans of neither team probably hate both the Celtics and the Lakers for the same reason.)
But it goes beyond just him being a Laker. There are also the Jordan comparisons. The common-held theory is that Kobe sees himself as some-sort of heir-apparent to Michael Jordan. Kobe was just entering his teens as Jordan began his first reign of dominance, and he entered the league while Jordan was in the midst of his second three-peat. From the minute Jordan stepped off the floor in '98 people have been looking for someone to replace him, like some kind of Nike-sponsored version of 'The Da Vinci Code' (ITS A PERSON? WHOAAAAAA!). Kobe Bryant was just another one of the candidates (Vince Carter, McGrady, and on..and on..), and because of the endless non-stories about it, the backlash people felt towards him was a little justified. The fact that he was a part of the most dominant team (those 3-peat Lakers) at the early part of the decade didn't help. The other fact that he was the second best player on those teams seemed to disprove the theory, and make it even more frustrating when it didn't go away.
And finally, there is Kobe the drama-queen. The diva. The stories are everywhere. Temper-tantrums, conflicts with Hall-Of-Fame but incredibly smug head coaches. The guy who (as it was framed by the media) personally sent Shaquille O'Neal packing in the midst of what should've been another 2 or 3 title runs, and the same guy who seemingly came within an inch of demanding a trade when Shaq's talent wasn't immediately replaced. Kobe's unapologetic, aloof, but despite all that, he's super-high profile, and constantly in the news. He's the kind of guy who even if the Colorado stuff had never happened, we still would've found a reason to hate. LeBron James knows what I'm talking about.
But you know what? Somewhere, in the last year or so, a lot of that changed for me. Click the break to find out why.
Kobe Bryant Might Be A Bit Of A Jerk, But He's A Leader Who Leads By Example, And (At Least Recently) It Seems Like He's Got His Teammates' Backs
Kobe Bryant is not a good role model for children, unless you want to raise a bunch of hyper-competitive, self-involved psychopaths. But, as a leader, one cannot doubt his resolve. He's a bit heavy handed, and isn't scared of pointing fingers, both publicly and privately, but he's still a heck of a leader.
When the Lakers were in the midst of being swept in the second round of the playoffs last year by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks, Kobe Bryant never gave up (well, at least not when there was still a sliver of hope they'd pull it out). I watched those games, I watched the post-game press conferences. His narrative leading into game 4, being down 3-0, never wavered from "If you think we're losing this series, you're nuts." Turns out, that was malarkey, but that's not the point. Kobe's attitude of 'I don't care about the odds, or the context, or the reality, I'm a winner, I make my team a winner, and that's that is what I'm getting at here. He might not invite his teammates to barbecues, might not have spaghetti dinners at his super-cool new bachelor pad before big games, but you have to think that there must be something comforting as a teammate of his knowing that there is nothing, not pain, not off-court drama, nothing that your captain will allow to come between himself and the prize. It's clear especially in these last years (since they got Gasol), Kobe is obsessive about winning.
Like a crazy-obsessive. If he were as obsessive about cats as he is about getting another ring to go with his already HOF-worthy collection of 5 championships, he'd be on hoarders. While ideally you'd rather have General Patton over Captain Ahab, you still gotta respect the nature of the beast.
And to build on that, Kobe is very conscious of his teammates and protective of them....when it comes to him winning games. This has not always been the case, as a young man, it was certainly not the case. But especially recently, Kobe has been standing up for his teammates. He will throw the entire Laker Nation under a bus if it means he gets another 'chip, but when he sees the front office make a move that he feels is counter-productive to that, he has zero issues speaking on that. When the Lakers shipped out Lamar Odom to clear room for further moves that never manifested, Kobe spoke out, and he was angry. When he saw that trade rumors had been getting into Gasol's 'mental-mind', Kobe "told" the front office (the media) to 'either trade him or don't but make a decision' (Jimmy T recently put out a great article articulating why maybe that wasn't even a real threat. READ IT!).
Kobe Bryant Does All The Stuff Us Cynical Fans (And Larry Bird) Feel A Superstar Should
The Boston Celtics, until another 'Basketball Jesus' comes along, will always be in the shadow of Larry Bird and Red Auerbach. And those guys, they put a blueprint out there of what a 'superstar' should be. Hard-working. Able to play through pain. A 'student of the game' with an obsession with winning, and getting better every year. Kobe Bryant is all of these things. In fact, in a recent (AWESOME) podcast with Bill Simmons, Larry Bird was posed the question 'what current player would you have liked to play with', and his answer was,
"Well, probably Kobe, because of the fact that ... well, of course he wouldn't have been shooting as much as he does now ... but his desire to win, his dedication, to always get better, uh, and he's just, he's just tough," Bird said. "He's just a tough cat.
"But, if you want to have fun, like I did with Bill Walton, play with LeBron. It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron, but if you want to win and win and win, it's Kobe. Not that LeBron's not a winner, just that [Kobe's] mindset is to go into every practice, every game, to get better." - ESPNLA
Kobe's apparently got the finger of an 83 year old man for all his dedication, and his wrist is has a torn ligament in it that requires a pre-game cortisone shot. Off the court, he's got to wear an immobilizer, and it probably won't ever get any better. Not that Kobe's complaining about it, heck he doesn't even like to talk about it. Remind you of anyone?
He Is Cocky To The Point Of Hilarity, And You Really Don't Think He's Wrong
I mentioned earlier that Kobe had been considered one of 'the lost scions of Jordan', but understand that he doesn't see it that way at all. When asked a loaded question in the lead-up to the big Laker-Heat game about who his possible 'rivals' might be in the current NBA, he had the following:
"At this point my rivals, in terms of what I have left to accomplish in my career, (left the game) when Magic (Johnson) and Michael (Jordan) retired in '98," Bryant said, referring to the second of Jordan's three retirements that came after he won his sixth and final championship with the Chicago Bulls. "That's it. In terms of what I'm looking to accomplish, that's about it."
The man doesn't see himself as Jordan's heir-apparent, he sees himself as Jordan's peer. He characterizes Dwyane Wade as too young, and states, 'When I came into the league, he was in elementary school,' despite the fact that Bryant, 33, is only 3 years older than Wade. But he sees himself in an entirely different class than Flash. He also once stated that, "These young guys are playing checkers. I'm out there playing chess."
Our first reaction as Celtics fans is to see this stuff and think, "Kobe's so full of himself." But, is it all that different than Larry Bird walking into a 3pt contest and asking who is going to come in second?
The bottom line is, its still okay to hate Kobe Bryant. But you gotta respect that guy. Five rings, two finals MVP's and one regular season MVP, countless All-Star appearances, and again....FIVE RINGS.
While Kobe Bryant might not be the best human being in the world, he might play for the most hated team in Celtics Nation, and he might be the most enoyable guy to watch fall flat on his face in the entire NBA, he is probably as close to those old-timey NBA Legends as we're going to see for a while. At least until Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose turn really, really mean.