Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mamba and Michael, With One Striking Similarity

This will be short. I had an odd conversation a little over a week ago with Matt. I made a statement that he found totally ludicrous and I thought was quite interesting and different. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts as well. My case is this:

The reason Kobe is the best, at least right now, is because of adversity. Not in the same way that Lebron has Chris Bosh's girlfriend yell at him or that he wants to 1-up Jay-Z. The moment that took Kobe from Super-Duperstar to Throat Slicing Killer who will throw teammates under a bus for the chance to win because winning is the only thing that matters Kobe was the whole rape incident. I am not here to defend him or any of his actions. But I made the analogy to Matt that it took that rape case for Kobe to truly turn it into another level. Much in the same way that Jordan's retirement (a.k.a. huge gambling and promiscuity problems) gave him a killer instinct upon his return that he had not even yet reached. And that is saying something, since Jordan's singular drive to kill all competitors is widely regarded as the gold standard for competitive edge. However, these two incidents were treated very differently.

At the time Jordan was at his zenith, he WAS the league. No one else mattered at all. Period. There was Jordan and then there were 20 some odd other franchises and some good/pretty good players. Stern could not take the chance on having any human foibles, be it gambling, sleeping around or whatever affect his entire dynasty. And Jordan was his dynasty. Taking Mike away from the game for a couple years, under this false retirement, assured him of getting everything clean under the closest thing to a cloud of secrecy that he could afford, at that time. When Jordan came back, he was hungrier, smarter and more vicious than ever. Because frankly, he let his personal problems affect his business matters (being the face of basketball) and he didn't take to kindly to getting 2 less championship rings during his prime. However, he accepted that punishment like a professional (and in those days, Jordan was a pillar of professionalism. Even if it meant being ruthless). And when he came back and won again, there was a magic added to his lore greater than ever before.

Flash ahead a few years. The closest thing to a "face" of the league at the time was Kobe. Not in all the ridiculously positive and transcendant ways that Jordan was, but still, he was the most recognizable player in the game, along with his cat-fight partner, Shaq. However, the league was a whole different beast now. The NBA was growing into a global power, expanding into new markets and not so overly reliant on 1 person to carry the game to all ends of the earth. The league didn't need Kobe, but it certainly liked having him around. So, when Kobe's promiscuity hits the fan, Kobe gets thrown under the bus. There is so much else happening around the league (unlike when Michael was the only thing that mattered), that one person could not make it or break it (though Ron Artest tried admirably a couple years later). That outright carelessness from the league, the feeling that they had no reason/want to protect Kobe and his image was the defining moment of his career. When you mess with fire, you are gonna get burned. I think that when Kobe got caught up in this fiasco and he watched the league (which had piggy-backed off the Laker dynasty in the post-Jordan era) left him chained to the rocks, primed for the vultures, that he gave a big F-U to Stern, the League and anything other than himself and his own motives. It made him harder, less likeable, more prone to showing his temper and a greater competitor than anyone could have ever realized. This one incident helped transform Kobe from the guy we didn't like because he was so cocky winning those rings and hating on Shaq to the Mamba we lambast and brutalize in our blogs every day.

However, it can't be stated enough that no matter what has happened since then (and judging by the posts today, we are all well aware), Kobe has become the lightning rod for all criticism and praise available in today's game. Kobe has that ferociousness than Lebron might not ever gain, because Lebron will always be coddled and fluffed by the NBA machine. That is not saying Lebron will never have a killer instinct (he already does) or that he won't win multiple championship (I think he will). But between these two enormous pillars of fan graciousness and adoration, Kobe has become to broiling inferno that will melt anyone who dares get near him. That is why we are so fascinated with him. At least it is the reason that I am fascinated with him.

Again, I am not condoning anything during that Colorado incident that Kobe may or may not have done. In fact, I don't care. Because, I am not a judge. I am a basketball fan. But, I do believe that the incident, the league's reaction and its long standing ramifications were the catalyst for the Kobe we know (and either love or loathe) today. He doesn't care about you or anyone else. It's not that he is a bad person (he isn't), but it's because he is so singularly focused on eliminating any criticisms of him or his game that he has become this truly amazing player. I hate to think that such a stupid, awful off court incident helped aid in his on court greatness. But, because he was not protected, like Jordan, or exhalted, like Lebron, Kobe has become the most focused and polarizing athlete of our time. And maybe, just maybe, the greatest ever.

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