Monday, September 14, 2009

The Reformation of a Kobe Hater

I have never liked Kobe. And I have never been afraid to hide it.

It probably spawned out of the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia, when Kobe said he wasn’t from Philly, then promptly dominated the game to win the MVP. I, like most of the crowd that day, booed Kobe.

From that day forward, for whatever reason, I couldn’t look at Kobe objectively. I blamed the break-up of the Lakers on him (ok, I was right on that one, Phil Jackson blamed him too). I thought he was selfish. I thought he made his teammates worse, not better. It didn’t matter what he did, I found the negative.

His 81 point game, I lamented the fact that he had 2 assists and 3 turnovers, that he had taken more than half of his teams shots, and allowed no one else get involved whatsoever in the offense. Not to mention to took advantage of an awful Toronto team

His historic scoring performance in Madison Square Garden this past season, he dropped 61 points, but all I saw were the three assists and zero rebounds. And then, when Lebron followed Kobe’s performance up with a near triple-double a few days later (but let’s be real, they should have kept the triple-double), I lauded the opportunity to lessen Kobe’s accomplishment.

Needless to say, I didn’t become a Facebook fan of Kobe.

But last Friday, I was caught watching all of the Basketball Hall of Fame pageantry. And while they inducted some great players (John Stockton, David Robinson), there was really only one guy getting inducted.

Frankly, how could you not get caught in watching all the Jordan moments. The great shots, the great games, the great dunks, the great quotes, there is nothing quite like filling your day with MJ.

But one thing that MJ said caught my ear. Speaking to the great Tex Winter (the triangle offense is not what it is without the contributions of Tex) after Tex says that there is no “I” in team, MJ basically says there is an “I” in win.

And I, in my Kobe hate naturally think of Kobe and wonder what I would say if Kobe had ever said something like that. I would have killed him. Then I realized that was instituting one thing I really hated: a double standard.

How could I love MJ for all his hyper-competitiveness, desire to win, which sometimes manifested itself in “selfishness”, yet hate Kobe for showing the same thing. The fact is, MJ made me realize that Kobe is the closest thing that we will ever see to him.

When you throw out the obvious differences between the two in their career arcs (Kobe never played baseball, MJ didn’t start his career by playing with the most dominate force in the league), and Kobe not having made the shot on Ehlo, shoving away Byron Russell, or playing with the flu, these two are basically the same.

Kobe, from a very young age, had an extreme desire to win, and like MJ, wanted to put the big shot up himself. Even though as a rookie he airballed two game winning shots against Utah, he never shied away from the big shot.

But, usually for Kobe, it doesn’t come down to the big shot, because he owns the fourth quarter, and there is where he develops his iconic moments. Though nothing quite compares to Jordan’s moments, Kobe has some big moments of his own, like his alley-oop to Shaq capping their 15 point comeback against Portland in 2000, the way he dominated the 4th quarter and overtime against Sacramento in Game 7 in 2002, his game-winner to win the Pacific division in 2004, his game winner in Game 2 of the finals in 2004, his fast-break 360 pass to Pau Gasol in Game 4 just to name a few.

But exactly how does Kobe remind me of MJ. It’s really all in your interpretation of selfishness. Re-watching some of MJ’s games over the last week, you have a different sense of what selfish is. There’s a certain point when the great player has to say “get on my back, try not to strain my neck, we’re going to win.”

Put it this way: when I’m playing ball, I can probably get hot early and do some good things early in the game. But then, I get tired, make bad decisions and start jacking up terrible shots from all points on the floor, you know doing my best Ron Artest impression, I look to whoever the best player is on my team and just hope they take over so we win and I can get a drink of water.

Kobe, post-Shaq has mastered this. He has found the balance of getting everyone else involved before the fourth quarter, where Kobe begins his surgical dismantling of his opponent (a perfect example is Game 3 against the Nuggets this year. He just ripped their hearts out). And we all know what MJ could do in the fourth quarter.

We all know about the skills. Offensively, Kobe’s repertoire mirrors MJ’s. They both have the fade-away jumper, tremendous footwork, and the ability to make good defense look like no defense at all. Defensively, both have that lockdown ability when needed, although both were a bit overrated because they didn’t have to do it night in and night out.

Now, don’t take this as me saying Kobe is the next Jordan because he’s not. Kobe’s pettiness with Shaq and the episodes where he refused to take shots to prove how much they need him to shoot didn’t exude leader. But then again, Jordan’s Atlantic City gambling runs after playoff loses didn’t exude leader either.

All this happens to be is my appreciation for Kobe being realized through reliving MJ. Their similarities are striking in their demeanor, play on the floor, cold-blooded mentality, and even their guarded personal personalities.

There will never be another Michael Jordan. There can’t be. The accomplishments are well-documented, the stories well-told, we all know what Michael Jordan did. But the closest thing we will ever see to him is Kobe. And I only have MJ to thank for letting me see this. Without completely reliving Jordan, I would have always seen Kobe as an amazing talent who never understood how to be a great teammate. But because Jordan’s legacy showed me that I was completely wrong, I understand that Kobe is probably a top 5 player of all-time, probably just behind Jordan and Magic, just ahead of Wilt. Who would have thought MJ would have reformed a Kobe hater?