Bryant is one of the most divisive athletes in sports. Some people swear he is better than Michael Jordan. However, detractors dismiss him as a ball hog.
Regardless of whether you cheer for Kobe or root for him to fail, you need to respect his game.
First off, let me say that I am not in the "Kobe can do no wrong" camp.
I'm not naive. I don't think his desire to win stems from a deep sense of loyalty towards his teammates. I don't think he bought his wife a $5 million ring because he's generous.
Kobe Bryant is a flawed human, just like the rest of us.
The reason you need to respect Bryant begins with his infamous work ethic.
There may not be a harder working player in the NBA. He is never satisfied and is always trying to get better. Despite standing at "only" 6'6", Bryant enlisted Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon's help, to improve his low post game, over the summer.
(Just think if Dwight Howard was that dedicated. While the NBA is loaded with talent, it is short on dominant centers. Add some killer footwork to his athleticism and size, and Howard could be transcendent. Seriously, how is he not averaging 30 points per game by now?)
Praising an athlete for their work ethic is a sobering reminder of how so many great players lack drive. It also illustrates how so many fans begrudgingly accept athletes who are at many times indifferent towards reaching their potential.
Think about it.
In the world of business, shareholders expect CEOs to increase profits every quarter. In politics, voters expect politicians to never make mistakes. Teachers are expected to turn every student into a genius.
As a society, we even expect fast food workers to quickly deliver us our food the same way every time.
In sports, however, most fans care infinitely more than most athletes do. Granted, when a player noticeably slacks off on the field, public outrage soon follows. But there is no outrage when a player chooses to spend his offseason on vacation instead of getting better.
There is no outrage when a player avoids the weight room or skips optional team activities.
Will Jets fans turn on Darrelle Revis for sitting out plays in practice in hopes of receiving a new contract? Maybe for a short while. But once he makes his first interception, all will be forgiven.
It'd be great if Bryant was not an exception.
After all, millions, if not billions, of people around the world do their job to the very best of their ability. Of course, very few people in the world get paid inordinate sums of money to play a game.
By constantly seeking new skills, Bryant has set himself apart in the world of professional sports.
He is not content with earning a large salary and enjoying celebrity status. He wants to be the best.
Bryant is more than a hard worker. He is a leader and deserves credit for stepping up and wanting to be the face of the team. Unlike many talented athletes, he puts himself in a position where he will be credited for victories and criticized for shortcomings.
He thrives on the pressure that comes with being an alpha dog.
This isn't to say that Bryant has always been a great teammate. Sometimes, his methods of leadership have been counterproductive. At times, he will use games to make his point, like in Game Four against Oklahoma City, where he refused to shoot.
He still yells at teammates when they make mistakes. It has to be embarrassing to be chewed out on national television. Bryant fails to, as a business instructor once told me, "Praise in public, discipline in private."
Despite the questionable methods, Bryant has still had success with the Lakers. Since his recent success, a lot of commentary has discussed how he has changed from a selfish player to one focused solely on winning.
I don't know if his motives have really changed.
His desire to win could very well result from his own pursuit of greatness. A player can win, involve his teammates, and still be selfish. The results matter most.
I doubt Lakers fans will value their 2009 championship any less if Bryant came out and said his only motivation was to further his own legacy.
Plenty of criticism can be thrown Bryant's way. After Shaquille O'Neal left, Bryant struggled to get the Lakers back to championship form. He shot the ball too much, and even wanted out of Los Angeles at one time.
Those years were not Bryant at his best, and his actions on and off the court deserve scrutiny.
Hating a player can be just as entertaining as loving one. Sometimes, it is more satisfying to watch a rival lose than to see a favorite team win. Bryant has certainly garnered a lot of detractors.
While there is nothing wrong with cheering against Bryant, it is important to respect him.
At the end of the day, you want Bryant on your team.
You take the cons because they're outweighed by the pros. He will give everything he has and is not afraid of the moment. How many players in the NBA could that last sentence apply to?
The defense rests.