He is both globally loved and loathed. Laker fans jump to his defense when they hear any disparaging word, while his detractors relish in every single one of his failures.
Bryant is either a fierce warrior who drives his team to victory or a selfish dictator who saps the confidence from his teammates. It just depends who you ask.
He is either a rapist who should be incarcerated or the victim of a fame-hungry floozy in search of money. It just depends who you ask.
Kobe is either a soulless, derivative force that succeeds in spite of himself or a misunderstood superstar on a never-ending search to be loved. It just depends on who you ask.
Despite the vigor with which people show their emotions toward him and despite the awards and championships he has won, there has been only one constant in Kobe Bryant's career: It has been plagued by a massive shadow of doubt.
That shadow of doubt was cast immediately after Kobe stepped to the podium at Lower Merion High School and smugly announced his intention to enter the NBA draft right out of high school. People wondered aloud whether he was mature enough to handle the rigors of being an NBA player. Consequently, he fell to thirteenth to the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 Draft.
The shadow grew even larger when Bryant's agent let it be known Kobe wouldn't play in Charlotte, which led to the famous Kobe-for-Vlade Divac trade.
After a complete choke-job during the 1996 playoffs against the Utah Jazz in which Bryant shot three air balls in crunch time, the criticism changed from his maturity level to whether Kobe was even good enough to be an NBA player.
Kobe then squashed that criticism over the next few seasons, becoming a crunch-time scorer, an All-Defense and All-NBA selection, and one of the three alpha dogs that led the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2000-2001.
After the second title, most fans began wondering aloud who the true catalyst for the Lakers' success was. Was it Phil Jackson, the "Zen Master," who had already led Michael Jordan's Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s? Was it Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominating big-man since Wilt Chamberlain? Or was it Kobe Bryant, the up-and-coming superstar who had already heard comparisons to the aforementioned Michael Jordan?
Well, Kobe sure thought he was the catalyst.
Throughout the next three seasons (which include one title), the Lakers locker room was divided by constant in-fighting and bickering, both in the media and behind the scenes.
Basically, you were in Camp Shaq/Phil or Camp Kobe. There was no middle ground.
The masses all piled into Camp Shaq/Phil in the summer of 2003 when Bryant was accused of raping a woman in Eagle, CO. The media once portrayed Bryant as a clean-cut family man who some would even call "boring." But following his indictment, many wondered if we ever knew Kobe Bryant at all.
The shadow of doubt continued to rear its ugly head following the 2004 NBA Finals as fans and media alike wondered whether Kobe would allow his ego to destroy a juggernaut Lakers team that could be dominant for years.
Well, now we know the rest of the story. It's been told. A lot. (If you don't know, just pick up Phil Jackson's book The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul , and it will tell you everything you need to know). After Phil and Shaq's departure, doubt grew even more as Laker fans and the media vocally wondered if Kobe could win without them.
Following that break-up was a three-year stretch where, at best, Kobe acted like a petulant child without his binky. At worst, he was the reincarnation of the devil himself.
Bryant barked at teammates, quit during games, wore on fans, and irreparably damaged his image. Oh yeah, he also put together one of the most dominating individual stretches of basketball in NBA history and lead teams to the playoffs that started the likes of "Smush" Parker, Chris Mihm, Brian Cook, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Kwame Brown.
Not exactly the 1986 Celtics.
The "can't win without Shaq" criticism continued until last season when the Lakers won the NBA championship five seasons after the Big Aristotle's departure.
All shadows gone from a brilliant career, right?
. . . Not quite.
There are still two massive shadows that Kobe must compete with: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
The competition with Magic Johnson is quite simple: Who is the greatest Laker of all-time?
The MJ one, however, is much more complex. As previously mentioned, Kobe began drawing Jordan comparisons very early in his career. And it wasn't by mistake.
Kobe modeled his game after Jordan and attempted to do everything he possibly could do to emulate his idol. Some of his critics even called it an obsession. The Jordan-Kobe comparisons are spot-on. They are both incredibly intelligent basketball minds, both are extremely demanding teammates, both are disgustingly sore losers, and both certainly are the top two shooting guards of all-time.
The problem is, Jordan was better. And knowing that has given Bryant the ultimate Napoleon complex.
So, what is the point in all of this? Why bring up all of Kobe's old criticisms?
Because Kobe Bryant is six wins away from extinguishing any shadow left on his NBA career.
With the Lakers currently up 2-0 on the Suns, they are almost assuredly on their way to the franchise's seventh NBA Finals appearance in eleven years—a feat only eclipsed by Russell's Celtics and Magic's Lakers.
Given the improvements to the competitive balance of the game, you could argue that Kobe's feat is better than the aforementioned dynasties.
If, as favored, the Lakers do win the six games necessary for the 2010 NBA title—Bryant's fifth—the new question becomes how highly do you place Kobe Bryant among the greats of all time?
I say no lower than fifth.
You can debate your top five all you want, because after number one, it's debatable. (For full disclosure, here is my current top 10: Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Magic, Wilt, Bird, Kobe, Oscar, West, Shaq).
If the 2010 Lakers win the NBA title, Kobe simply vaults Bird and Wilt into the top five.
Well, first let's take care of Bird.
Bird: 13 seasons; 12 All-Stars; 10 All-NBA selections; 3 All-Defensive Team selections; 3 MVP's; 3 NBA Titles; 21,791 Points; 5,695 Assists; 9,874 Rebounds.
Kobe: 14 Seasons; 12 All-Stars; 12 All-NBA selections; 10 All-Defensive Team selections; 1 MVP; 5 NBA Titles; 25,790 Points; 4,766 Assists; 5,410 Rebounds.
The only two places where Kobe loses by a significant margin are MVP's and rebounds. On the other hand, Kobe is a far superior defensive player, better scorer, and has won more championships.
Don't get me wrong, if Bird's back doesn't go out on him this very easily could have gone the other way, but Kobe has both better stats and more rings.
As for Wilt, there is absolutely no individual statistical way you can possibly defend saying Kobe is better, and that's the problem: It was always about stats for Wilt.
There have been countless tales about Wilt overpowering 6'4" white guys and scoring 50.1 PPG. But there have also been just as many stories about Chamberlain's petulant babyish attitude that would make Kobe's greatest temper tantrum seem like a minor complaint.
Winners win championships. Wilt won scoring titles. Edge to Kobe.
Do you want to know the greatest part of this? Kobe is nowhere near finished.
This Lakers team, as currently constituted, could be a top-tier team for three or four more years.
If Bryant finishes with six titles and eclipses Kareem's all-time scoring record (both semi-realistic), how great does that make him?
Better than Jordan?
I don't know.
I just know one thing: Writing this will either make me someone who finally recognizes how great Kobe is or a complete moron. It just depends who you ask.