Beware The Black Mamba!!!

Keith SmoothCorrespondent IApril 17, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 09:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after defeating the the Denver Nuggets, 116-102, at Staples Center on April 9, 2009 in Los Angeles , California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.


Of all the African snakes, 

the Black Mamba is the most feared 

and is known for being aggressive when agitated 

and will strike with deadly precision.


You can always tell when it’s springtime in America:


the cherry blossoms are blooming.

the daisies are blooming.

the Octomom’s uterus is blooming.

It is at this time, in sports, when we say hello to MLB and we begin the long, arduous process of saying goodbye to the NBA.  The playoffs start this weekend for the National Basketball Association and there are two things you need to know. 

1. Out of all the major sports, it’s the one that’s easiest to predict.

2. The playoffs are really, really long.

What makes the start of the playoffs so much fun is that there’s always a bunch of subplots and storylines.  This year is no different.  LeBron James, the best player on the planet, has a real shot of bringing a championship to Cleveland.  Dwayne Wade has a real shot of averaging 40 points a game on a terrible Miami Heat team.  The Portland Trail Blazers have a young and exciting team.  And the defending champs, the Boston Celtics, have to try to win the title again without their best player, Kevin Garnett.  But I think the biggest storyline is coming out of L.A.  The Lakers are the favorites and I suspect that no other player in the league has more riding on winning the championship than Kobe Bryant, a.k.a. the Black Mamba.

Many snake experts have cited the Black Mamba as the world’s most aggressive snake, 

actively aggressive and attacking without provocation.

I have always found Kobe Bryant utterly fascinating.  He came into the league in 1996 as a precocious 17 year-old with a world of potential.  He had flashy moves, he spoke Italian, and he took R&B starlet Brandy to his high school prom.  In 13 years he has had an incredible, Hall-of-Fame career winning 3 titles, 2 scoring titles, 1 MVP award, with 11 All-Star appearances.

But for all his success, his career has experienced more turbulence than Oceanic Flight 815 (the fateful and fictional plane on LOST).  He publicly feuded with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal.  He gained the reputation of being a selfish ball-hog, a malcontent, and a prima donna.  And he was publicly excoriated by coach Phil Jackson in the bestselling book “The Last Season.”  But of course, that paled in comparison to the sexual assault charge that was levied against him in 2003.  At the time, Bryant was the league’s most popular and marketable player, earning more money in endorsements than anybody else.  Although the charges were later dropped, his meticulously crafted image was decimated and he was never looked at the same.

When O’Neal left town in 2004, the city was Kobe’s to own.  And what he wanted more than anything was to prove to the world that he could win a title without the big fella.  The relationship between he and Shaq was like the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  So we would be correct to assume that he was livid when O’Neal went to Miami and won a championship playing second-banana to Dwayne Wade. While Kobe played on dreadful Laker teams, Shaq flourished, validating himself after his acrimonious split with L.A.  It also helped that Shaq was infinitely more likable that Bryant.  O’Neal was (and still is) a big goof, with the ability to charm anyone with his playful demeanor.  On the flip side, Bryant is more frosty than a blizzard from Dairy Queen.  One of the more interesting dynamics of this current Lakers team is how his teammates are wary of pissing him off, lest they face the wrath of the Black Mamba.

When in the striking position, 

the Black Mamba flattens its neck, hisses very loudly, 

and displays its inky black mouth and deadly fangs. 

Last season started out a little iffy.  During the summer of 2007, Kobe publicly berated General Manager Mitch Kupchak and chastised his young teammate, Andrew Bynum.  Then he demanded a trade.  A few hours later, he recanted.  Then he surprisingly brushed off media day at the start of training camp. Then he dropped hints that he would opt out of his contract.  And to cap it all off, the Laker fans who stood by him during the dark days of his assault case, booed him on opening night.  But a funny thing happened to the Lakers on their way to purgatory.  A team no one considered a threat, they finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference.  They received help along the way thanks to the infamous lop-sided trade that brought Pau Gasol to L.A.  But no matter.  The Lakers were relevant once again.  They returned to the NBA Finals but were ultimately defeated by the Boston Celtics.


For me personally, I've always enjoyed going to the barbershop, not just for the haircuts, but to listen to those guys talk about basketball.  I always listen first.  And then, inevitably, I join the fray.  Last week the conversation went like this:


Anonymous Customer #1: “I don’t care what you say, LeBron gon’ take it this year.”

Anonymous Customer #2: “Man, I don’t know.  Dwight Howard is a beast.”

Anonymous Barber: “Dwight Howard???  Man, you smoke crack.  Howard won’t get out of the first round.  Who ya’ll need to be talking about is my boy D-Wade.”

My Barber: “I still like them Celtics.  They the champs until somebody beats em.”

My Barber speaking to me: “Who you think gon’ win it this year?”

Me: “The Lakers.  I think everybody is going crazy over Cleveland and LeBron.  He may be the most dominant guy out there but I think his teammates aren’t ready.  You have to have your ass handed to you before you become a champion.  Last year, the Lakers got their ass handed to them.  It made them a better, more defiant team.  This time around they're more focused.  I’ll say this slowly.  Ya’ll . . . better . . . beware . . . of the Black Mamba!”


When warding off a threat, 

the Black Mamba delivers multiple strikes 

injecting large amounts of potent neuro-and-cardiotoxin with each strike, 

often landing bites to the body and the head.

The Black Mamba is the nickname Kobe Bryant gave himself a couple of years ago.  And unlike all those silly nicknames that Shaq has given himself over the years, this one fits Kobe to a tee.  He has a vicious competitive streak that rivals the bounty hunter known as Michael Jordan.  But for all of his success, he is one of the most polarizing figures in American sports history.  The love affair for Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles is obvious.  But outside of L.A., he is more loathed than loved.  In fact, I’m willing to argue that he is the single most hated professional athlete.  Who can forget in 2002 when he was loudly booed at the NBA All-Star Game after he was named the game's MVP.  And the worst part?  The game was played in his hometown of Philadelphia.


If you ask a Kobe-hater why they dislike him so much, the answers are all the same:


“He’s arrogant.”


“He’s selfish.”


“He’s an adulterer.”


“He broke up the Laker dynasty.”


Notice how these comments have nothing to do with what he does on the court?

And you know what?  With the exception of that last statement, you could say the exact same thing about the much-adored Michael Jordan.  Yes, he was the greatest and most successful player ever, but that other stuff (the commercials, the Nike sneakers, Space Jam) was all image.  The real Jordan was a mean and cruel SOB who terrified his teammates, slept around with various women, and gambled with highly shady people.  But the media LOVED the guy.  And the last thing they wanted to do was to anger him by asking him questions that made him uncomfortable.

Kobe gets no such treatment, not from the media and definitely not from the fans.

My dad, Sam, absolutely despises him.  Every since he came into the league 13 years ago, my dad has bashed him like a piñata.  And when the rape allegations came to light, my dad (and quite a few of my friends) seemed oddly satisfied, as if those charges justified what they already suspected about the guy. 

But here’s what I believe.  The guy was raised in Italy.  Then he moved to Philadelphia, one of the toughest cities in the country.  I don’t think the black kid with the Italian accent necessarily fit in with his classmates.  The critics who've been the most vocal over the years have come from the black community who never thought Kobe was “real” or “street”, like the more popular Allen Iverson.  But I think that his European/American upbringing stunted his social growth.  I’m not making excuses for the guy. But I do think that experience, combined with what Phil Jackson hinted at in his book (Bryant had a rocky childhood) created the lightning rod that we have today. 

But Kobe Bryant, unlike that other much-maligned superstar Alex Rodriguez, doesn’t care what you think of him.  He’s more worried about his legacy and he believes a championship without Shaq will vindicate him too.  And he’s right.  This is my personal list of the 10 all-time greatest players in NBA history:

1. Michael Jordan

2. Wilt Chamberlain

3. Bill Russell

4. Shaquille O’Neal

5. Magic Johnson

6. Larry Bird

7. Oscar Robertson

8. Jerry West

9. Elgin Baylor

10. Tim Duncan

I have Bob Cousy, Julius Erving and Kobe on the outside looking in.  But if Kobe wins it all this year, doesn’t he have to be legitimately placed on everybody’s top 10 list?

I don’t care how much you may hate him, you have to at least give him that respect.

I’m a die-hard fan of the UNC Tarheels.  My hatred for the Duke Blue Devils is on par with the hatred Heather Locklear has for Denise Richards.  But I respect Coach K and I think he’s arguably the best coach in college basketball.

And that’s how I feel about Kobe.  He’s one of the greatest players of all-time but he is also one of the most underappreciated players of all-time.  On Facebook, there’s an application in which you can select the best five players in the NBA and display it on your profile page.  My friend LaDontae selected his five and left Kobe off the list.  When I asked him why, he said that he thought Kobe was good but he “just didn’t like him”.  In a jokingly manner, I started singing the lyrics to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, Uma Thurman memorably played the role of Beatrix Kiddo, the bride who was left for dead by her former allies.  In the end, she avenged those who tried to kill her and presumably lived happily ever after.  Her codename was “the Black Mamba.” I don’t know about the happily ever after part but I do know one thing.  When the dust finally settles in June, a vindicated Kobe Bryant will be the last man standing, . . . just like Uma.


The Black Mamba’s bite is potentially fatal.  

Without treatment the mortality rate is 100%, 

the highest among all venomous snakes in the world.



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