As recently as last season, during the regular season, I openly detested Kobe Bryant.
I could write a book on why I hated Kobe Bryant.
It was, to me, a rehash of the Shaq-Kobe "Combo" years, where Kobe would ditch the triangle offense in search of personal glory. As Kobe climbed up the All-Time Scoring list this year, the Lakers posted eight less wins than their previous championship season, finishing 57-25.
But you know what ended up happening in those Shaq-Kobe Combo years? Kobe learned to play as a teammate come Playoff time, and the Lakers managed to Three-Peat.
Kobe's silence during the free agency period was his greatest P.R. asset. Kobe would never dream of running a self-celebrating one hour special on himself; it's not that he's not narcissistic enough to do it, it's that he's always been too smart to expose his deepest emotions on a one hour television special.
Kobe wants to be the greatest to ever play the game, and so his life revolves around the game itself, not the fame and the celebrity that comes with it. With bile tickling my throat, I will admit that he is the second best two-guard to ever play the game.
If Bryant were to die tomorrow, he would certainly go out as the heir to Michael Jordan, and rightfully so. What we need to do, as NBA fans, is to appreciate the fully-developed, maturing, frozen-blooded assassin that this man has become. I will say it once and for all; you don't have to like Kobe Bryant.
Despite his attitude, his past incidences of petulance, his brush with moral crucifixion, his squabbles with different players, his trade request, and his near-signing with the Clippers, it's still very possible to like him.
Like him or not, however, we as NBA fans have no choice but to respect his abilities, his accomplishments, his undying love for the game, and his new-found maturity.
First of all, Kobe is much, much more cerebral than the media likes to give him credit for. Take, for instance, that Kobe and the Lakers managed to recruit Ron Artest from the Rockets, their single biggest Western Conference threat in the 2008 Playoffs.
With Battier, Artest, and the pesky Brooks, the Rockets had one of the most hellacious perimeter defenses in the league. Kobe pretty much took that tripod and ripped off one of its legs, and what's more, brought that tenacious defender to his team to contend for a title. Despite the comical amount of missed jumpers, Ron Artest came out in an absolute dog fight Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals as the game's most valuable player.
As for Kobe's shot selection in the regular season, who can blame him? As long as the Lakers get enough wins to make the Playoffs in some fashion or form, and establish home court advantage, is there any other point to winning in the regular season? Kobe should be permitted to chase individual accolades in the regular season, as long as he keeps the perspective to lift his team to victory in the postseason. He did just that-- the Lakers won the 2010 NBA Finals in particularly grueling fashion.
Kobe has learned to trust his teammates, particularly his friend Derek Fisher, and (sometimes at the Lakers' expense) Ron Artest. Kobe personally lobbied for Fisher to return to the Lakers under a less-than-savory contract, inevitably to meet the salary cap while pursuing their sixth championship ring in eleven years.
In another move showcasing his increasing maturity, he has reached out to Raja Bell to sign with the Lakers in free agency. Raja Bell, some of you might remember, is infamous for his on-and-off court spats with Bryant. Few people know that the seeds were planted when Bell was a rookie for the Philadelphia 76ers, facing Kobe in the 2001 NBA Finals.
Bell described Kobe as a "pompous, arrogant individual", and in 2006, Kobe responded in pompous-as-advertised fashion by basically refusing to acknowledge Bell by name in his response. Of course, in Game 5 of the Suns-Lakers series in the same year, Raja Bell clotheslines Kobe, setting off a firestorm of "Kobe probably deserved it" rants.
Fast forward four years later, where Kobe is now attempting to tickle Raja's fancy and trying to recruit him to the Lakers.
Shaq did something similar at this stage in his career, convincing Gary Payton and Karl Malone to come to the Lakers to chase rings in what ultimately resulted in a failed 2004 campaign.
Here's the difference: Shaq wanted pure firepower on a team that had more than enough firepower. Kobe, on the other hand, is assuming all primary-option scoring duties, and is looking to add tenacious defenders who can hit open shots if, and when, Bryant draws a double team. It's the type of move that showcases Kobe's astounding basketball IQ, something the brutish-yet-personally-savvy Shaquille O'Neal never possessed.
The Lakers don't need another scoring option to complicate things; offensively-skilled Pau Gasol and his affable, meek disposition was a welcome foil to Bryant, and a complete godsend to the embattled Lakers.
The Lakers already have their leaders; they now need soldiers who are willing to go to war. If all-out hardwood-hell-on-earth like Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals are any indication, the Lakers' true floor general is going to need more bodies.