With apologies to the 'Dos Equis' guy, Barack Obama, and Lionel Messi, the world’s most interesting man at the moment is none other than Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant.
His Lakers are on the precipice of winning their 15th NBA title—Bryant’s fourth (but first as the go-to guy)—and the sports writing world is in a frenzy trying to put this in perspective for Kobe’s career.
This is what makes Kobe so interesting right now.
His career has gone in so many crazy directions, it is impossible to decide what kind of perspective to take. He’s gone from being the future of the league and the next Jordan to star-sidekick and beloved figure.
Then there were rape accusations and he was exposed as, not only a meddling teammate and coach-killer, but also a potential sociopath convict.
From there, he went to shady character, having the specter of the rape charge loom over him. He was also portrayed as the ultimate “me first” athlete.
Yet in the past two years, he has reinvented himself again as a dominant player and cultural icon, even if he will never reach the beloved status he so desperately craves.
Kobe Bryant puts on a fantastic front to make you think that he does not care what you think about him. From what I have observed, that is a complete lie. Maybe he finally has realized that people won’t embrace him the way they did Michael Jordan, but he certainly cares plenty about his image.
Just take the recent documentary on him, "Kobe Doin’ Work." According to multiple sources, Kobe would only allow Spike Lee, one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood, shoot it if he could have complete creative control. It is imperative to Kobe that he maintains an image of good teammate and respectful parent/husband that we are all skeptical to.
Even in 2004, when Shaq was traded (most likely because of him) and the civil suit as an alleged rapist was settled, his behavior was public-conscious. He went on multiple news outlets to defend himself as a teammate.
But (this gets lost in the shuffle now) don't forget his bizarre public statement to his accuser after the settlement, where he said: "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did."
(An aside: I can’t help but wonder when I watch Kobe what that woman thinks now when she sees him on TV. It’s a little disconcerting.)
This is a man who has always wanted to live up to the playing/marketing standard of his idol, Mr. Jordan. And while he won’t get there, he certainly has cemented quite a legacy for himself.
He’s probably going to be remembered as the best guard in the league post-Jordan and before LeBron James’ meteoric rise this year. He plays for one of the NBA’s two most historic franchises in the second-largest market in America, where he has won three championships.
His one-two combination with Shaquille O’Neal has to rank among the best one-two duos in basketball history—perhaps the best. He’s won his MVP and holds numerous points records.
And yet, there is that elusive Shaq-free ring.
As I don’t believe that Kobe doesn’t care about his image, I also don’t believe he doesn’t care about winning a ring without O’Neal. Doing so would cement his status as one of the greatest players of all-time—certainly top 10 and maybe the second best guard underneath his hero.
It would put to rest all the lingering questions about his supposed capability to sacrifice enough of his game as the top guy to carry a team to a championship. It would make him the nonpareil of the NBA, at least until LeBron wins his first ring.
One has to think that this matchup could not have worked out better for him. Kobe won’t get the chance to be embarrassed by the guy nipping at his heels in the Finals. Rather, he’ll face an Orlando team that, while battle-tested, is raw when it comes to this stage. He’s been sharing the ball better and yet still coming through big. He’s hungry and ready.
And this is what is at stake for Kobe Bean Bryant. With questions surrounding his team, father time catching up to him, and LeBron and Dwight Howard cresting in their primes, this is his last best chance at getting the fourth ring.
His legacy as an outstanding public citizen will forever be polarizing. His legacy as a basketball player will be one of sheer greatness.