This summer, standing at the top of the NBA, Kobe Bryant has a long way to peer down the mountain that he has just climbed. Seven years ago, 2004 proved to be the worst year of his professional life. An abyss he found himself drowning in.
That year, Kobe had to overcome sexual assault charges stemming from an incident in a Colorado hotel, which while the case ended long before a verdict, in the court of public opinion, Kobe was a convicted man.
Sponsors fled like ants after the chicken at a picnic. Friends betrayed him. And, Kobe endured the brunt of the blame for Shaquille O’Neal being traded from the Lakers.
Kobe was bad guy number one, in the eyes of most NBA fans and complete food for the tabloids. His marriage was on the rocks, his professional life damaged, to what most thought was beyond repair. His popularity waned so far that his jersey sales plummeted. There was barely a shoe contract.
But Kobe used his best asset to rise from the ashes. His intensity and focus proved to get him through his personal storm. The basketball court became his sanctuary and the starting point for his redemption.
And, a funny thing happened on the way to being forever hated. Kobe Bryant became the most popular player in the NBA. Seven years after a sexual assault charge, who'd have thought that was even possible?
Globally, his jersey outsells even LeBron James. And, like King James, Kobe is sponsored by the largest footwear company in the world, Nike. Kobe’s shoe commercials of him jumping luxury cars or being depicted as a puppet along with James are fan favorites.
Another surprising change in Kobe’s image came out this week. Even in the aftermath of the LeBron James decision to play in Miami, Kobe’s reputation grows.
Just the other day, in commenting about how LeBron abandoned Cleveland, left his other suitors hanging, and bolted to Miami, Sam Smith of bulls.com went so far to say, "Now they're saying, 'You know what? Kobe's a classy guy! Kobe never would have done that!' "
The words classy and Kobe Bryant never used to be written in the same sentence. But what has reappeared for Kobe off the basketball court in the form of sponsorships and adoration is a direct result of what he has accomplished on it.
Basketball brought the fame and popularity the first time around and again, from the depths of those dire days in 2004, Kobe mounted the climb back to the top from the hardwood.
Kobe’s work ethic saw him through all these tough years. He knew, no matter what the public’s perception, that forgiveness is found in excellence.
Simply put, winning erases a lot of things. And, while Kobe wasn’t a champion immediately, he did make that steady assault back to the summit.
Now, with two rings on his own, from out of the shadow of Shaq, Kobe has stepped back on top. He’s been to three straight NBA Finals and 2011 looks no different for his Lakers.
But there is a real difference in Kobe. Before, it was the brash, ego-centric young man we saw before us. Now we get simply a man with a lot of life experience. He is friendly but not as open as he used to be. He is short and succinct where he used to be expansive.
No one knows what really happened in that hotel room in Colorado except for the two adults involved. But Kobe was forever altered.
And, now, seven years later, it really doesn’t matter. Kobe has re-established himself as the greatest player of his generation, basically without peer except for one man.
In the last ten plus years, only Tim Duncan can hold a candle to what Kobe has accomplished. But Duncan is vanilla while Bryant comes with a lot of spice.
People love Kobe or they hate him, but everyone has an opinion about the man. You can’t say that about most stars, and definitely not Duncan.
Kobe deserves to be on top. And, not only because he simply has returned to the champion pedestal. He has earned his popularity because he has changed, grown up. You could stretch and almost call it a transformation.
We should all appreciate this player and the man we now see before us. No one is without fault, Kobe possibly the most, but what we are privileged to watch night in and night out won’t be around forever.
Like all the greats before him, Kobe is but a brief second of greatness, a flash and he will be gone. But for now, we have him. And, he has us. There he stands, at the top, the most popular player in the world and its quintessential winner.
For now, Kobe is the real king of the hill, at least until someone can knock him off. But knowing how hard Kobe works, that won’t be the easiest of tasks.