Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Deconstruction of the Mythical Folk Hero

Where can we find today’s mythical American heroes?

Surely not in the coal mines of the mighty Alleghenys, or in the dusty pages of a Dean Koontz novel.

Definitely not in the pockets of worn windbreaker jackets, or in the amalgam of individuals clamoring for attention on city streets.

Perhaps they can be found in the realm of politics, where a junior senator from the Midwest can rally an unstable country behind his unquenchable spirit and symbolic fist bump.

However, without question, sports remains as the single realm that allows the populace to sculpt heroes in the same fa├žade as those characters documented in our glorious and shameful past.

Sports, you see, really do matter. The basketball court is our Roman Colisseum, the football field our Spartan Agoge. We scream for our heroic figures to exude grandeur, to entertain us, and most of all, to provide historic records of their achievements so that we may pass down their legend from generation to generation. We beg perfection from mortal individuals in a world that scoffs at that very idea.
To me, there’s something poetic about a dream deferred. As Shakespeare once wrote, there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. When one of modernity’s heroes falls short of inscribed goals and society’s high expectations, he nonetheless indirectly escapes the hollow sublime. Our society demands its heroes to function without blemish, to perform as enthusiastic actors on our make-believe stage. Perhaps this is why the greatest superheroes wear masks. Or, in the case of football players, helmets and face paint.

But alas, in the sport of basketball, one is not afforded the same luxury. As Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes runs unbound in the forests of the Yucatan, unknown basketball stiffs get mobbed for autographs and memorabilia as they exit common urbane locales. Heck, my mother recently saw Herb Williams exiting our local YMCA. As the great Dave Chappelle mentioned in his Inside the Actors Studio interview, once you acquire fame…you can never be unfamous. Perhaps infamous, as the martyred Ron Artest can surely attest, but never un-famous. And as a basketball player, your gift of freakish athleticism and height may very well come to function as a curse.

I’m not here to wish this inauspicious prophecy on the Black Mamba. The Black Mamba, or Dendroaspis polylepis, is a venomous “tree snake” found in the jungles of my native Africa. And no, I don’t wish ill-will against Kobe Bryant, either.

However…why can we find many of the scribes, thinkers, and fellow superpowers of the basketball underworld passionately rooting against this artificial Lakers infantry? Why am I cheering against this collection of men, simple pawns used to potentially capture victory for the overzealous chessmaster (Kobe Bryant)?

Well, there are a bevy of reasons, actually. Some root against the Lakers because of the inherent bias found in today’s NBA, with Stern’s referees crafting champions at their discretion. Some root against the Lakers because of their annoying fans, those imbeciles that choose to hang pennants from their car antennas and blast E-40 en route to the Staples Center.

But as I watched Kobe complete yet another momentous comeback against arguably the hottest team in the Association, an intriguing hypothesis crossed my mind. Is it Kobe Bryant’s destiny to play the tragic hero? Is he simply a physical vector destined to fall short of its intended trajectory?

Simply put, I want to see how he reacts to normalcy. Throughout his career, Kobe has shirked normalcy, instead choosing a path of decadence without genuine exuberance. Like a surgeon, every move has been predetermined, every motion calculated, every game tape examined. Since the Colorado incident, Kobe has worn the mask of politeness, conformity, and uniformity. Bryant has formed friendships with supporting cast members beneath his level, even while it pains him to do so. One by one, his sponsors and advertisers have crawled back to his feet.

Personally, I miss the old Kobe Bryant. The high school phenom from Philly that donned the LAKERS #8, the youth that chose to ignore gravity by playing expertly above the rim. The kid that wasn’t afraid to show his emotions and embrace those veterans around him, for better (Shaq) or worse (Gary Payton). The innovator of the famed running alley-oop pass, and the awkward teenager who famously took Brandy to his senior prom. The basketball savant that possessed a semblance of enigmatic majesty. Yeah, I miss that guy.
Let’s be clear: I’m not forwarding the idea that ’96 Kobe compares favorably to ’09 Kobe in regards to his talent level and basketball acumen. That teenage prototype needed the compassion and support of the Big Teddy while this fully functional version is clearly autonomous in nature. When he’s doing work, Kobe Bryant is a well-oiled machine. But…he’s just that. A machine.

In short, Kobe Bryant has become a binary. Either you love him or you hate him. That’s it. And this ongoing rhetoric is not conducive to the formation of the folk hero, a mythological status that young Stephon Curry enjoys but an aging Kobe still seeks to attain.

In many ways, this is Kobe Bryant’s last chance. Lebron will improve, Dwight Howard will learn a wider array of post moves, Wade will find a new cast of characters, and the Paul/Williams dichotomy will become new fodder to strengthen the NBA’s menacing stranglehold of the advertiser. And with over 1,000 games already transcribed on his physical odometer, Kobe’s not getting any younger. Soon, Kobe Bryant and his ragtag troupe will take residence in the annals of Basketball.

Kobe stands as a marketing godsend, global ambassador, and revolutionary cosmopolitan. But will that career-defining championship forever elude his grasp?

In a matter of days, we’ll soon find out.

Let us begin our journey to this final frontier.

Mike Benjamin, II


  1. Great piece bro! Nice morning @ work read! I'm looking forward to more of your high-level writing, instead of the water down you had to do for the Hilltop poplulation. Haha.

    Love ya.

  2. Great writing, Mike... I look forward to yor first book.

  3. Thanks both. I'm looking forward to more of this, too. (Doesn't mean I'm ready to throw away ALL of the low-brow writing...LOL)