Today, for this glorious event that is Kobe Bryant Blog Day, I have decided to take a slightly different approach. I’m not going to debate the merits of Kobe next to Jordan or Kobe against LeBron, or examine Kobe’s MVP candidacy or his chances at a fourth championship. I don’t feel like debating these issues; they’ve been covered a great deal over the past twelve years, especially this season, and are being discussed across the blogosphere today. In fact, even if I wanted to research obscure Kobe stats and information, I’m confident his player page on every major NBA-related website will have crashed by the end of today, rendering such research impossible. Yes, today is meant for Kobe love, but why has it come down to us needing a day just to love him, to fire back at the haters?
Instead, I want to look at why we’re doing all of this, all the time, debating Kobe without resolution or rest. Why the hell is Kobe Bryant such an interesting topic? Why is every piece of Kobe’s legacy so debatable?
What makes Kobe Bryant the most polarizing player in sports today?
That question may be slightly hyperbolic – you would be hard pressed to find a true basketball fan that discredits Kobe’s ability or even counts him outside of the league’s top-10 players. There really isn’t a Kobe Sucks camp next to a Kobe Rules camp. The Anti-Kobe versus Pro-Kobe separation is a more a result of Pro-Kobe versus Pro-Anyone Else evolving with both sides assuming the other is either blindly in love or blinded by hate, wearing rose-colored goggles or drinking Hater-ade. I sometimes have trouble figuring out whether the world is debating Kobe versus LeBron, Kobe versus Michael, or Kobe versus the Universe.
The debate has evolved. But regardless of which side of the Black Mambo pillow you lay your head to rest on, you surely have a side. We cannot just concede that Kobe and Michael are incomparable, that Kobe and LeBron are equals, that Kobe should be judged by his on-court and off-court selves separately. Instead, every Kobe question you could think of has been amalgamated to form one fundamental question every basketball fan has been found asking themselves more and more as the debate grows in magnitude and relevance.
Pro-Kobe. Anti-Kobe (or, if you prefer, Pro-Player/Ideal X). You may only choose one.
There are several things that have lead us to this point, though few of them are knocks against Kobe the player. Initially, I thought the primary cause was the availability of so many reference points. If Kobe was the undisputed best active player or best of his era, there would be no argument. Instead, Kobe has been compared with Michael, Shaq, Duncan, Chamberlain, Magic, and now, and the debate that heats the blood more than any of these others, LeBron James. This holds true for a great number of athletes, though, and this polarity is nonexistent with all but KB-24. It must be something else then. I look to one key reason that has resulted in Kobe being as controversial a sports topic as Yankees-Red Sox, Leafs-Canadiens, and yes, Tar Heels-Blue Devils.
Kobe’s is not a good guy.
If you’ve seen the baseball movie Mr. 3000, Stan Ross (played by Bernie Mac) is a cocky, brash, egotistical player who happens to be the greatest hitter of his era, amassing 3000 hits in his career. The movie begins with a Reebok commercial of him hitting balls in a batting cage while saying the following, and I think this speech is a good starting point for understanding the wedge Kobe drives through the basketball world:
”You don’t like me because I don’t sign autographs. *Hits ball* You don’t like me because I don’t smile for the camera. *Hits ball* You don’t like me because I don’t suck up to the press. *Hits ball* You don’t like me because I make a lot of money. *Hits ball*But you love me… *Hits ball* Because I’m one of the greatest… *Hits ball* Hitters… *Hits ball* Alive.”
For a long time, it seemed like Kobe wanted to win the love of the fans. He seemed likable, somewhat approachable, and looked like he was having fun when he played. When his relationship with Shaq dissipated, Diesel received the benefit of the doubt from, well, everyone, because he’s the lovable Big Aristotle, the Best Quote in Sports, the friendly giant. Kobe took this reputational slight and stuck it in his back pocket.
No, wait, rewind. Kobe was also charged with the sexual assault of a woman in Colorado. It should be noted that this woman was a notorious basketball groupie, and the world overlooked this. Kobe was, by all accounts, guilty of adultery but not sexual assault. When he all but admitted it by surrendering an enormous diamond ring to his wife, the writing on the wall became pretty clear – Kobe wasn’t your lovable superstar, and he definitely wasn’t a role model. This revelation, coupled with the fallout from the Shaq debacle and The Zenmaster’s short-term retirement, painted Kobe in a new light, as a cold superstar.
A cold killer. Emotionless. Cold-Blooded. Unconscious. All of these accusations and descriptions were exceedingly comparable to Bryant’s style of play, making the general consensus that Kobe was an asshole grow stronger daily. The fact that Kobe was comfortable to let the basketball world fester in their hate for him while he simply played basketball made things worse. If he didn’t care about being liked, we all thought, then he must be exactly what we think he is.
And then Kobe donned the cover of Slam Magazine with a Black Mamba snake wrapped around his arm, dubbing himself with a new nickname that I am shocked hasn’t become more widely used. It was perfect. The description of this snake – cold, calculating, deadly – was the same description that had been given to Kobe’s on court play and, in less impactful terms, his personality.
In the time since Mamba was unleashed on the world, Kobe has gone through a great deal of transformation on and off the court. While his 2007 offseason was ugly at best, his 2007-08 campaign has made him look every bit the superstars that ‘Kobe lovers’ see him as, as he is back to having fun on the floor and winning at all costs.
You don’t hear Kobe gripe about being the best active player to not own an MVP. You don’t hear Kobe complain about being disliked, hated even. And nowadays, you don’t hear Kobe complain about the team, his teammates, the coach, or his future. In fact, the only thing you do hear Kobe talk about is winning championships, something he seems primed to do for the fourth time this June. He has taken a page out of Eminem’s book, telling the world, “I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would I say I am, in the papers, the news, every day I am, I don’t know that’s just the way I am.”
Whether or not we like Kobe makes no difference to him, it would seem. And this is why a lot of people find it easy to dislike the man who just may be the greatest player playing the game today. Kobe is concerned with winning basketball games, knowing this will solidify his legacy in the long term, the one goal I am confident drives him most. Kobe will go down as one of the greatest players of all time, love him or hate him, and he knows this. He simply will not be denied greatness.
And it’s for that reason that he’s so easy to love…and so easy to hate.