Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Curious Case of Kobe Bean Bryant

In sports, whenever a superstar is precariously close to realizing their biggest individual dreams, a myriad of historically relevant questions tend to saturate our discussion. In the case of one Kobe Bean Bryant, one question tends to become more pronounced than the others:

Has “The Mamba” eclipsed M-Jeff Jordan?

See, I've never been big on saying anyone has "eclipsed" anyone, because basketball (unlike any other sport) is about experimentation, mimicry, and free-flow (like I mentioned in the first installment of my “Basketball and the Black Aesthetic” series). Kobe gained from Mike, who gained from Dr. J, who gained from the Big O, who gained from Baylor, etc, etc, etc. No one is mutually exclusive.

Football is our chess match. Baseball is our marathon. However, Basketball…ahh, basketball…is the result of our creativity running wild…like an experiment that's constantly improved and reworked.

Instead of answering this question (which has been debated both ways and now bores me to death), allow me to posit a more intriguing query. No offence.

How will we remember Kobe Bean Bryant in 15 years?

Before winning this latest championship, the Kobe Bryant of 2003-2009 came off as a more smug reincarnation of Jordan, an athlete with a huge chip on his shoulder (Shaq). He's a product of the "Let's Find the Next Jordan!" basketball decade. He's also hurt by the increased scrutiny that faces the modern player, the YouTube clips, the blogs, etc, etc, etc. There will never be another MJ because people expect too much from our superstars now. Think about it. When LBJ hit that fadeaway 3 to beat the Magic in the ECF, how did you react? Honestly? Sad to say, I was like "It's about time." WHAT? Lebron had just hit a fade away three with 1.0 sec left over two guys to keep his team alive in the series...and I wasn't floored. Impressed? Yes. Floored? No, not really.

Therein lies the problem. As 2 Corinthians 10:12 says and I paraphrase, "When you do all of this comparing and grading, you quite miss the point" (Message). While no one is mutually exclusive as far as the acquisition of their skills and abilities go, everyone deserved to be treated separately from those who came before them. If my Uncle was a no-good cheat, does that mean that you're allowed to treat me as such? Of course not. Kobe should be allowed to exist simply as Kobe, LBJ simply as LBJ, Nate Robinson simply as Krypto-Nate (I kid, I kid).

But as fans, we don't allow that to happen. We need our guys to be tangible, to fit some designated mold we’ve previously crafted with our defective imaginations. But that's stupid. Everyone's different, and should be given space to be whoever they want. If Tim Thomas chooses to ignore his basketball potential and simply enjoy his steady stream of dollars and cents, why not let him?

Well, because it pains us to do so. He’s wasting his opportunity, we yell. That could’ve been me, we scream. You get to play basketball for a living, others complain. For this reason, we hate it when our guy misses a layup in crunch time, or clangs a free throw to extend the series, or loses a series-saving rebound. That could have been MY chance to shine. Heck, we’ve all dropped the ball before. We’ve probably wasted countless job hours surfing the web for free or filling out a popularity quiz on Facebook. Can’t Dwight miss a free throw every once in a while?

But this question brings me to my next point. Even if Kobe didn’t go on to win the NBA Finals this year, I would still regard Kobe as one of the best ever. Period. Here’s my chief concern with Kobe. He's never allowed us into his personal space. No, I’m not asking Kobe to set up a Twitter account so that I can track the amount of times he gets Peapod to deliver canned meats to his house. I don’t need to hear public relations stories about his excursions to soccer practice or listen to his Michael Jackson a cappella performances with his children. Kobe deserves his privacy, and I intend to leave him be.

However, I’ve always seen Kobe’s career as an elaborate ruse. Simply put, he’s always maintained his fa├žade, never allowing his innermost feelings to enter the public domain. Kobe shows us what he wants to show us…doing so in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.

Let’s be clear: He’s not the first athlete who’s ever tried to pull the wool over our eyes. Magic did, smiling his way into our hearts long before allegations of extramarital affairs crept into our bylines. Michael did, giving us a show on the court while fighting to exorcise those demons of anger, infidelity and gambling that continue to infect his life. Tiger does, feeding us discouraging rhetoric while excelling in a sport that offers multiple championships sans physical contact. And Kobe now does, painting a watercolor of his wonderful life and career…even if that picture fails to reveal an honest story.

Yes, part of that is our fault. We eviscerated him after the Colorado mess because he edited our storybook ending, so to speak. Kobe was the man of our dreams, the guy that fit the generic superhero role that we’d come to expect from mere mortals following His Airness. Kobe was the single face to emerge unscathed following the “Next Jordan” movement, a divisive time that effectively swallowed up the careers of guys like the venerable Harold Miner. Kobe had proven himself a winner, a master craftsman, a tailor worthy of hire. But then, he became real. Too real, in fact, for our puritan ears to handle. His extracurricular exploits expedited his sentencing in the court of public opinion well before our hero stood proper trial. (He was found not guilty, by the way.)
Following the trial, his bitter divorce from that precocious partner (Shaq) and subsequent switch to 24, Kobe emerged without spot or wrinkle, or so he thought. In this age of digital media and convergence, we are allowed access to spaces once deemed irrelevant. Kobe, we need to see your true reaction to pressure, your true smile, your true disappointing face. We need to see your humanity.

MJ and Tiger are cool with blocking their humanity from us. But now, I can only remember Jordan as a BRAND. Michael Jordan IS the fist pump, the tongue wag, the Jays, the cologne, the movies…no more, no less. In reality, MJ is human. He doesn't have good relationships with any of his former teammates, he's recently divorced, and he's a rabid gambler. Unfortunately, he chose to become un-human, to become a brand...but people can no longer connect with who he is. Again, as the Bible says, "all those things (rings, money, brass) pass away." We only see a dark reflection of M.J., but he's just as lost and confused as any basketball player who once reigned supreme.

Kobe is a carbon copy of '96 Jordan, the Jordan that recoiled into his shell following the death of his Father and his foray into amateur baseball. The Jordan that no longer cared about public perception, that blacked out his youth from his memory. That's nothing that we should be proud of, or attempt to emulate. As fans, we are now starting to realize this (thanks to the economy, Obama, etc.) and are beginning to once again embrace distinct quality over monetary quantity. However, as the lynch pin between these two eras, Kobe has already chosen his path.

Yeah, we'll remember that Kobe Bryant was "The Black Mamba", the "Closer" before Kyra Sedgwick, the 2009 Finals MVP, a legend among mere mortals. However, because of the change that has occurred in our world, the historical perspective on Kobe Bryant will always come attached with jeers and respite.

Why? Because Kobe chose to embrace a defective archetype (the '96 Jordan)...and dismissed those unique characteristics to speak to his individual humanity.

Kobe is who we've created him to be, but we can't stand it. Alas, this is what he’s become.

Mike Benjamin, II

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