Kobe Bryant is selfish.
Kobe Bryant is spoiled.
Kobe Bryant is a cancer.
Just four years ago, that was the perception of today's MVP.
After the Lakers laid down for the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, Phil Jackson had had enough. The man who once harnessed the power of Michael Jordan, tamed Dennis Rodman, and smoothed out the abrasive edges of Shaquille O'Neal had met his match. The Zen Master concluded that Kobe Bryant was incapable of achieving basketball enlightenment.
Jackson fled Los Angeles after that series and wrote a tell-all book ripping his former young star apart like Roger Ebert discussing the Deuce Bigalow sequel.
Kobe refused to be coached. Kobe was abusive to his teammates. Kobe had anger issues. He even went as far as to say the rape allegations Kobe faced weren't very surprising.
Overall, Kobe was painted as an indignant sociopath who would never be able to put the team before himself—representing the very antithesis of the qualities valued in team sports.
But now that Kobe appears to be just another gregarious, albeit supremely talented, teammate on a Lakers' team that won the Western Conference, all is forgiven. And, more or less, forgotten.
Like a slowly digested victim of the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi, that anger, that indignation, still sits in Kobe’s belly, waiting to rear it's ugly head at any moment.
Curt Schilling’s recent blog post confirms this. The things that made Kobe so unlikable in 2004 live on in 2008. The only reason sports' fans don’t acknowledge it is because they’re too busy enjoying his greatness.
Kobe’s abilities with a basketball don’t come along very often, and when they do, basketball fans want to do everything they can to capture a bit of that excellence. They want to be able to say that they saw one of the best.
And because Kobe found himself surrounded by first-rate teammates this season, he finally experienced the feeling of being the best player on a winning team, which is what he coveted as he ran Shaq out of town. Such an ideal situation pacified the demons inside him.
Once the losing started in these Finals, the Kobe Bryant that inspired Jackson’s book came out in full force. But even now, fans are refusing to acknowledge it. They were too quick to forget, to eager to forgive.
It has been said countless times, but sports act as a sanctuary from the commotion of everyday life. For three hours, you can sit down and truly live in the moment. The day’s difficulties go on the backburner. Tomorrow’s obstacles seem miles away. Only the game matters.
That simplicity, that perfection, vanishes the moment we see the game as corrupted. The action on the court doesn’t seem like a game anymore. It seems like an act, a mere performance. And fans will take any opportunity to ignore the signs of such impropriety. They don’t want their sanctuary compromised.
It was just so damn fun watching Kobe perform at the highest level these last few months. The man was doing things we hadn’t seen on the court in over a decade.
We saw him joking around with his teammates and coexisting with his coach. We wanted to believe that Kobe had figured it all out. To us, the fun-loving guy we saw on the court was indicative of the off-court character of the “new” Kobe. What we can’t see must certainly match what we see on it.
Interestingly, such forgiveness takes place far more often when social rules like self-sacrifice and teamwork are defied, but not for violations of the rulebook.
If a high profile player like Roger Clemens or Mark McGwire break baseball’s rules by taking steroids, they are instantly and permanently vilified.
Fans need to believe what they see is the truth, but only when it comes to an amorphous concept like “clean” competition. Who cares about core values of team sports like sportsmanship or cooperation?
As long as his statistics are legitimate, the celebration of talent creeps into unwarranted aspects of the player, like his character.
So feel free to forgive Kobe for exiling the Big Aristotle, alienating the greatest coach of all time, and all-and-all being a total ass. It sure makes watching him play much more fun. Just don’t grant him his sainthood just yet.