Love him or loathe him, any time the words “Kobe Bryant” comes up in conversation (virtual or otherwise), you are bound to elicit more than the solitary disinterested comment. No other current NBA star elicits the same full spectrum of emotions that Kobe Bean Bryant does. From the impassioned arguments for Kobe being the G-O-A-T, eclipsing the great MJ, to the “Kobe is an over-rated, selfish ball hog” statements that are thrown up, reducing Kobe to a mere ‘good player’ that will be forgotten by the next generation.
In paradoxical simplicity, Kobe is both overrated and underrated. Coming from a Lakers fan of more than two decades, I have to be brutally honest here. Kobe is not the G-O-A-T, he should not be in the conversation, at least not yet.
I love Kobe’s game more than any other active player, but for him to join the ranks of the basketball immortals, the Jordan-Magic-Bird-Kareem-Russells of this world, he has to lead his team to a NBA championship.
Though Shaq could not have won the three rings without Kobe, there is no doubt who was the “2″ in the best 1-2 punch of the past decade. It is a fact of life, winners are immortalized; everyone else is forgotten.
That is why Magic is more celebrated than Stockton, Hakeem than Ewing, Duncan over Karl Malone, West over Maravich, and so on. This is the reality. If Kobe’s career ended today, he would be a Top 20 player, but would not crack the Top 10. History remembers winners.
Kobe is not the second coming of Michael Jordan, either. For the record, neither is LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. There is only one Michael Jordan, just as there is only one Kobe Bryant, and he ain’t too shabby, either.
Kobe was becoming an elite player when His Airness hung up his sneakers, robbing the NBA of not its best player but most marketable commodity as well. Coupled with the fact that they both share 6-foot-6 heights and the same position, small wonder the media were quick to anoint him as the next Michael Jordan, a title he does not relish nor aspire to live up to.
Divorced from the Michael Jordan comparison, one can better appreciate Kobe Bryant’s game…just as it became clear Michael Jordan was not going to be the next Magic Johnson, either.
Hence, while Kobe should not be immortalized (yet) or the next Jordan, let us appreciate him for who he is. No other current player has the same reading and understanding of the nuances of the game that Kobe has.
This is not merely intuition or experience. Kobe has an unparalleled dedication to the game that has him analyzing videos at a time when his peers would be resting or partying.
How many times have we seen the opposing home team get within one possession of taking the lead with the boisterous crowd egging them on; only to have Kobe coolly nail a jumper or a layup that silences the home team, eradicating their momentum completely?
Or the way Kobe reacted to the news of Bynum’s extended span on the inactive list with a 61-point explosion against the New York Knicks, carrying the Lakers to a perfect road trip. That is leadership, more than chest thumping and guttural growls.
Speaking of leadership, detractors are quick to point to three areas where Kobe is a poor leader if not, teammate. Firstly, the infamous Andrew Bynum “ship his a$$ out” rant. While it may not be the most endearing of acts by a teammate, it should be viewed in the proper context.
Kobe was not asking Mitch Kupchak to get rid of Bynum at 10 cents on the dollar because ‘Drew annoyed him. Rather, he was expressing his incredulity that Mitch Kupchak would not trade for a certified H-O-F point guard for a then unproven youngster.
If we are honest with ourselves, there and then, most of us would be share his shock. Based on Bynum’s limited appearance to the point, it was a close equivalent of Mitch Kupchak refusing to trade for Pau Gasol because he did not want to include Kwame Brown. Would we not have said “Kwame? Ship his a$$ out!” then?
Secondly, Kobe is viewed as a ball hog, taking more than 20 shots a game. Analysts are fond of saying how the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Kobe shoots less but is that a cause or effect?
When Lamar or Gasol or Bynum or even Ariza is having a big night, Kobe freely defers to them, acting as a decoy.
When the rest of the team are having an off-night, as the star player and leader Kobe takes it upon himself to shoot his team to victory which coupled with the lacklustre play of his teammates, results in double- or triple-teams and even more missed shots.
It is certainly not a case of Kobe being obsessed with padding his own stats that he lets his team down.
Third, Kobe is seen to be overly aggressive on his teammates, snarling at them for an ill-advised shot or a turnover. Is this not characteristic of leaders? To get their teammates to step up their game?
When KG berates Glen Davis into the famous tear fest, KG is merely being aggressive and driven, while Kobe is just a jerk. To his credit, Kobe has learned not to criticize his teammates openly outside of the court, staying out of media attention.
Another constant criticism that Kobe gets is that he could not lead his team deep in the playoffs before Gasol arrived. This is not exactly rocket science, but basketball is a team sport! MJ did not win without Pippen, nor did Magic win without Kareem and Worthy.
When your team starts Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, getting to the playoffs is pretty much testimony of your greatness. Losing to a Phoenix Suns team with the three headed Nash-Amar’e-Marion monster is not exactly a disgrace.
Nor is losing in the finals to a team with three future H-O-F-ers (although I will admit the collapse in Game 4 is pretty brutal).
The only valid knock on Kobe was his immaturity, feuding with his All-NBA teammate and coach leading to their departure. That however was half a decade ago, since then, Phil and Kobe has made up while Shaq, if he is to be believed, is willing to play with Kobe again.
Since then, Kobe has matured not only as a player but a person as well, wisely not commenting on Shaq’s famous rap.
He has also taken it upon himself to help Bynum then Gasol get their touches and integrate into the team since last season. This is not the same Ko-me that detractors have pointed their finger at.
Of course, Kobe does not give two hoots about what we impassioned fans think. He is only interested in being the best he can be. I am not arguing whether Kobe is the best player in the league (which incidentally I think he is, although LeBron will eventually surpass him), but I hope that fans and journalists alike can appreciate him for the player he is.
Without Kobe, the league would be a lesser place and fans (even Celtics fans, since I can appreciate what KG brings to the game) can appreciate what he brings each night.