I don't know Kobe Bryant. I've never exchanged words with the man, never sat down and talked with him, never so much as exchanged glances with him. The closest I've ever come to "interacting" with the Black Mamba was from a seat at the Staples Center during a Los Angeles Lakers home game.
Far be it for me, then, to cast judgment on what kind of person Kobe is, on or off the court.
Not that Smush Parker's recent assertions about the future Hall of Famer's personality in response to Kobe calling him "the worst" prior to the Lakers' Wednesday night game (via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times) aren't entirely plausible. As Parker, Kobe's teammate from 2005 to 2007, told Hard 2 Guard Radio (transcribed by Larry Brown Sports):
You can’t knock the man’s legacy, you can’t knock what he’s done in basketball...What I don’t like about him is the man that he is. His personality. How he treats people. I don’t like that side of Kobe Bryant...When you are the star of the team, you have to make your teammates feel comfortable. You have to make them feel welcome. And he did not do that at all.
Parker went on to cite specific instances of Kobe's supposed petulance:
Midway through the first season, I tried to at least have a conversation with Kobe Bryant — he is my teammate, he is a co-worker of mine, I see his face every day I go in to work — and I tried to talk with him about football. He tells me I can’t talk to him. He tells me I need more accolades under my belt before I come talk to him. He was dead serious.
On road trips, he traveled with his security guards. Those were the guys he talked to. On the team plane, he sat in the back of the plane by himself.
Later on, Parker explained his departure from LA after the 2006-07 season, invoking Kobe as a central figure:
The reason I wasn’t a Laker after my second year is because I didn’t bow down to [Kobe]. I didn’t kiss his a–. I wasn’t kissing his feet. Quite frankly, towards the end of the second season, I stopped passing him the ball. I stopped giving him the ball. I started looking him off.
Anyone who goes out of his way to ignore a superstar of Kobe's caliber on the court clearly isn't going to stick around for too long.
And frankly, Smush's assertions are hardly newsworthy. It's not unusual for a great player, especially one as fiercely competitive as Kobe, to sport such a massive ego and to be surly to others—including teammates—as a result.
Probably not. Part of what makes great players so successful is their belief, rational or otherwise, that they're the best in the business, if not the best thing since sliced bread.
That's not to excuse superstars for disrespecting other human beings but rather to attempt to explain the origin of their behavior.
It's also important to consider the context of Smush's relationship with Kobe, or lack thereof. They last played together when Kobe was a 28-year-old scoring machine, a perennial All-Star who'd been spoiled by early success alongside Shaquille O'Neal and was still adjusting to a post-Diesel reality in LA.
At that point in time, Kobe was none too happy about "wasting" his prime on a team that would be lucky to run into the Larry O'Brien Trophy on Rodeo Drive. If you were the Mamba, would you have been pleased with a roster featuring the likes of Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, and of course, Smush Parker?
Smush wasn't exactly a model teammate himself. Parker was known to have attitude problems of his own, clashing with Phil Jackson, oversleeping on team flights on occasion, and generally, exhibiting a lack of professionalism. It's no wonder, then, that he didn't get along with Bryant, who had (and to some extent, still has) a reputation for taking his work incredibly seriously and then some.
For instance, take this assertion from Smush:
Kobe Bryant says I’m the worst point guard, that I should have never made it into the NBA — he just frowns at the thought of me playing in the back court with him. Like Jay-Z says, people lie, numbers don’t. Just go to the stats.
If I don’t deserve to play in the NBA, why am I third on all the stat sheets on the Lakers team those years? I’m top three in all the categories.
Parker's right to point out that his production placed him third on the Lakers' totem pole during that time. What he doesn't mention, though, is how poorly he played when the games actually mattered (i.e. the playoffs).
During LA's postseason series against Phoenix in 2006, Smush averaged 13.7 points on 48.6 percent shooting through the first three games before tanking for 5.3 points on 18.9 percent shooting over the final four, the last three of which the Lakers lost.
Smush was so "good" the following year that the Zen Master benched him for the final two regular-season games and for the entirety of the Lakers' five-game loss to Steve Nash's Suns in the playoffs.
As for the rest of the team, Andrew Bynum was there but had a ways to go before he was anything close to the All-Star center he eventually became. Pau Gasol was still a figment of GM Mitch Kupchak's imagination, and Derek Fisher was bouncing between the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz.
Things have changed quite a bit since then, for Kobe and the Lakers alike. They've undergone two separate reloads, with a pair of titles sandwiched in between.
The Kobe of which Smush speaks probably isn't the Kobe who currently patrols the Lakers' locker room today. It's the Kobe that Smush knew might've been irritable and insecure, with his future as a champion in doubt and his legacy hanging in the balance thereabout.
As opposed to the Kobe of today, who, according to reports out of Lakers camp, is much more contemplative and at ease with his place in the game. He's more willing to speak freely and candidly about his past, present and future now that he's found an heir to his throne in LA.
He's also surrounded by much more talent than he probably could've ever dreamed of six or seven years ago.
As such, it's possible that Smush is right about the Kobe of old without registering comment about Old Kobe. Like any human being, Bryant isn't a static, two-dimensional character but rather a person on whom the forces of life have a formative effect.
Does this mean that Kobe's ego is any bigger or smaller now than it was in Smush's day? There's no way to tell. Basketball Reference doesn't keep stats on "ego diameter." Any correlation between ego size and shot attempts, shooting percentage and scoring, while not beyond reason, is entirely speculative.
We can't judge Kobe's personality as readily as we can his accomplishments, which even Smush admits are worthy of respect:
You can’t knock the man’s legacy, you can’t knock what he’s done in basketball. His work ethic is tremendous. There’s not an ounce of hate in my blood whatsoever. The guy can play basketball — you’ve seen that throughout his career.
If the goal (for whatever reason) is to pass judgment on the Mamba, the best we can do is take it from others—those who've spent time with and around Kobe, those who've worked with him, those who (claim to) know him.
Those like Smush Parker. Unless, of course, you'd rather not put any stock in the words of a guy who may or may not have had an axe to grind.
Or, better yet, if you don't much care about media-fueled drama that has very little to do with actual basketball.
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