Thursday, June 05, 2008

6/5/08 - NBA Finals - Anyone but Kobe

Ah, the glorious freedom from the shackles of the bandwagon fan! For these entire NBA playoffs I have been cheering the downfall of Boston, mighty mighty Boston. But now that they are playing the Lakers...

Well, it may be overly traditionalist of me, but I can't stand Kobe Bryant. The other day I read that if he had gone to college, it would definitely have been Duke. That fact surprises me exactly zero percent. In fact, there is a large part of me that heaves a huge sigh of relief that I was spared the sight of Bryant and Coach K hoisting NCAA trophy together and embracing. Because, as has been observed ad nauseum, Kobe Bryant is just that good. The man really is a transcendent basketball player. And, as Kelly Dwyer has argued on the Ball Don't Lie blog over at Yahoo, one thing that should be respected about Kobe is that he has a great deal of respect for his own basketball gifts. He works at his game. He adds shots, spins, additional footwork, additional weapons to the arsenal the longer he plays. This is commendable. In some ways, there's nothing more frustrating than the person that refuses to take advantage of their own prodigious gifts. Kobe's got the gifts, and he has taken full advantage. By all accounts, he is one of the hardest workers in the NBA.

He is also, by my estimation, a pretty crappy human being. For a great courtside account of Kobe's courtside demeanor in Boston during Game 3, when things weren't going his way, the noted authority Curt Schilling's got the definitive word:

The key passage:

"Kobe. This one stunned me a little bit. Who doesn’t know Kobe Bryant right? I only know what I have heard, starting awhile back with the entire Shaq debacle. I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other on or about him other than to know that people feel he might be one of the 4-5 greatest players to ever lace it up. What I do know is what I got to see up close and hear, was unexpected. From the first tip until about 4 minutes left in the game I saw and heard this guy bitch at his teammates. Every TO he came to the bench pissed, and a few of them he went to other guys and yelled about something they weren’t doing, or something they did wrong. No dialog about “hey let’s go, let’s get after it” or whatever. He spent the better part of 3.5 quarters pissed off and ranting at the non-execution or lack of, of his team. Then when they made what almost was a historic run in the 4th, during a TO, he got down on the floor and basically said ‘Let’s f’ing go, right now, right here” or something to that affect. I am not making this observation in a good or bad way, I have no idea how the guys in the NBA play or do things like this, but I thought it was a fascinating bit of insight for me to watch someone in another sport who is in the position of a team leader and how he interacted with his team and teammates. Watching the other 11 guys, every time out it was high fives and “Hey nice work, let’s get after it” or something to that affect. He walked off the floor, obligatory skin contact on the high five, and sat on the bench stone faced or pissed off, the whole game. Just weird to see another sport and how it all works. I would assume that’s his style and how he plays and what works for him because when I saw the leader board for scoring in the post season his name sat up top at 31+ a game, can’t argue with that. But as a fan I was watching the whole thing, Kobe, his teammates and then the after effects of conversations. He’d yell at someone, make a point, or send a message, turn and walk away, and more than once the person on the other end would roll eyes or give a ‘whatever dude’ look."

So, even within the borders of the basketball court, he's the kind of guy that's just absolutely miserable to play with. Speaking as someone with minimal talent but a great deal of love for basketball, there is nothing worse than playing with someone with immense talent consumed by rage and/or selfishness. Sports are metaphor, sure, but they're also games, played at base, for fun. Nothing sucks the fun out like a tyrannical Kobe Bryant-type. It's more complicated when you're talking about getting paid to play ball, and organized team sport vs. pickup, but there's a kernel of fun there that, from a fan perspective, is not an insignificant part of it. It is what connects my experience clanking 15-footers at the local park with NBA players' slamming home tomahawks on breakaways.

But there are many NBA stars that might not be all that fun to play with. The razor edge of competitiveness is pretty crucial for success in that crucible, so some bark and bite is to be expected. Choirboy Chris Paul, one of my absolute favorites, famously punched Julius Hodge right in the balls because Hodge had apparently squeezed Paul's injured hand on an inbounds play outside of the view of the officials.

Kobe, though, seems like a jerk on the court who carries that over into the rest of his life. Dude was making his teammates cry back in high school for letting him down. And oh, yeah, the rape allegation. The charge was dropped, so I suppose I can't hold that against him 100%, but he then followed it up with a huge settlement, a press conference announcing he had cheated on his wife, and the gift of what looked like the hope diamond to his wife. Ugh. These are the kind of people whose success I expend no energy to with for, to put it lightly.

The man's a millionaire many times over. He's a champion. His teammates wear his signature shoes. He's beloved LA-wide. Success is in the books. So I don't think it's so bad of me to with for abject failure for Kobe Bean Bryant on the NBA Finals stage.

Especially in contrast to these Celtics. Halfheartedly rooting for the upsets, and then casting my lot for Rasheed necessitated looking past a lot of tragic narratives. Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are all various forms of long-suffering, and don't give off that smarmy sociopath vibe that Bryant does. They have endured loss (all 3). Garnett is criticized for his lack of clutchness. Allen is operating on prayers for ankles. Pierce has stuck with Boston through thick and thin, and been stabbed in a nightclub to boot. They may have the best record in the NBA, but a victory for Boston's 3 (and everyone else) would be a true triumph over adversity narrative. Kobe winning his Shaq-less title is just another validation for the Greatest Player Currently Playing to sink further into his own narcissism.

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