There's a new movie opening on Friday August 13, 2010: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The premise? To date the girl of his dreams, Pilgrim must fight and defeat her seven evil exes.
The premise is novel and strangely bears an uncanny resemblance to the challenges Kobe Bean Bryant has faced over his 14-year NBA career.
1. Kobe vs. Teammates
Almost immediately after entering the NBA, Bryant had to suffer the slings and arrows of his teammates' hazing and perhaps jealousy. Who was this anointed kid? Or who did he think he was anyway?
Neither his infectious smile, tireless work ethic, nor his pedigree mattered. He was an interloper. He was a child on a team of men that had just acquired its "proven" meal ticket in Shaquille O'Neal.
Having nothing in common with men, Bryant mostly kept his distance, which only fanned the flames of discontent.
Making matters worse, Coach Del Harris did what most seasoned coaches did at the time—bring him along slowly (i.e., make him ride the pine). Never mind that GM Jerry West, the logo and one of the top 50 NBA players of all time said at the time that Bryant had the greatest workout he's ever seen. Never mind that Lakers crowds clamored for him nightly. He rode the pine.
The New York Times quoted Harris as expressing his frustration: "I don't want to be remembered...[as] the guy who wouldn't let Kobe Bryant play....I have to do it. I can't give him special treatment just because he's 18. He elected to come into a man's world and he'll have to play by a man's rules."
This was no drowning franchise like Cleveland was when LeBron arrived or like Minnesota is today. Both franchises put their product on the floor for better or worse—on the job learning, so to speak. Trial by fire. Live or die with the results.
The Lakers weren't where they wanted to be, but they stuck to the plan while Bryant kept his head down, burning for his chance to shine.
When the playoffs finally arrived, the Lakers faced the Utah Jazz and Kobe was suddenly thrust into a close game. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for and...he whiffed, tossing up three air balls in the deciding moments of a close game.
But, it only made him work harder.
2. Kobe vs. Public Perception
Bryant is a product of Philly by way of Italy. He's cultured and worldly, if not different.
While that may play well in the world of advertising, it doesn't on the streets. He's often considered cold, removed, distant, and aloof. Far from perfect. Inherently flawed. In his early years, Bryant often seemed to be searching for public approval and an adoration that has only been reserved for Jordan.
Outside of Lakers Nation, Bryant has hardly been beloved.
At the 2002 NBA All-Star Game, he was booed mercilessly by his hometown Philadelphia, after winning the game's MVP. His eyes welled with tears as he accepted the trophy and one can only imagine what was going through his mind.
Even within the core fanbase, there is a division over how to feel about him. Many consider him to be a selfish, narcissistic ball hog serving his agenda above all others to the detriment of the team. Those people never miss an opportunity to temper his accomplishments with a myriad of excuses.
To others, Bryant is a gifted talent, with an unparalleled will, who can do no wrong. To them, Bryant has been wrongly vilified on numerous occasions.
The truth may lie somewhere in between. Certainly Bryant is gifted as well as guarded and very much an enigma. His time in LA has been at once resplendent and beset by difficulties, often by his own hand.
After having unannounced knee surgery in Denver, Colorado in the summer of 2003, news surfaced of a forced intimacy between Bryant and a young woman.
Though the charges were later dropped, he compounded the matter by ratting out O'Neal while interrogated by the local authorities. The LA Times quoted Bryant as saying, “He should have done what Shaq does...that Shaq would pay his women not to say anything.”
Bryant lost nearly all of his endorsements and further polarized his fanbase.
Bryant is far too often perceived as less than something/someone else. Despite his significant accomplishments, the league, fans, and much of the world has always been ready to praise, even celebrate, everyone but Bryant.
They are always looking forward, past him if not through him, to the next big thing. Whether it's LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady, or someone else, Bryant is regarded as a great talent, but rarely celebrated as such.
There is always a reserve when discussing Bryant, if not an outright hatred.
To this day, the range of comments on message boards range from the ever-popular “He's no Jordan,” to “I don't care how many rings he has, he's still a rapist.”
Other than raw stats to back up Bryant's greatness, occasionally a poll will surface wherein coaches and GM's repeatedly say they want him taking the last shot above and beyond anyone else.
When everyone cried the sky was falling after the super-friends assembled in South Beach, Magic GM Otis Smith quipped, “Is Kobe retiring?” And still he is overlooked, if not under-appreciated.
China is the exception. There, Bryant is a God among men, an athlete respected and revered for his work ethic above all else.
Bryant's accomplishments and embracing of each and every challenge are examples to which they aspire. They appreciate Yao Ming and LeBron, but consider them physical freaks rather than icons of will and determination. The Chinese and much of the world outside North America celebrate the man and his hard work.
I wonder what that says about us?
Don't we always have the last word?
Note: Often, time does a lot to favorably alter public perception; the celebration of once-reviled/-overlooked artists such as Galileo, Kafka, and Van Gogh are just few examples. As the number of rebounding endorsements and jersey sales attest, perhaps time will prove kindest to Bryant.
3. Kobe vs. Shaq
It truth, this overlaps with much of the information presented before and in actuality continues to this day.
If O'Neal was the centerpiece of the Lakers' attack, Kobe was 1A. Many compared him to Robin, but Kobe hardly agreed. If O'Neal was an unstoppable force during this time, Kobe was a gazelle.
Each complimented the other to remarkable results. Teams truly had to pick their poison when facing the Lakers, as they had a dominance and skill on their side that was head and shoulders above the rest.
However much they won, Bryant and O'Neal rarely had a peaceful coexistence.
Perhaps their egos eclipsed their talent. Kobe deplored Shaq's inability to stay in shape and his nonexistent work ethic, while Shaq despised Kobe's desire to buck the system and dominate the ball.
So legendary were their disagreements, coach Phil Jackson would later write a book titled The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul, a reflection of the troubles Bryant and O'Neal experienced in their last season.
The conflict reached its apex when Dr. Buss and the Lakers traded O'Neal to Miami for Odom, Grant, and Butler.
The feud further polarized Lakers fans. You either sided with O'Neal or Bryant. Shaq went on to win his fourth title in Miami, while Los Angeles fans suffered some very dark days.
To this day, its safe to say there was no clear winner.
He wins by the slightest of margins. Dr. Jerry Buss chose him over Shaq. Many sided with O'Neal while Bryant faced his toughest challenge yet.
4. Kobe vs. Mediocrity
Shaq was gone. Phil was, too. It was a changing of the guard for the Lakers. A new season. A new coach in Rudy Tomjonavich. This was, for the first time, truly Kobe's team. It was a challenge to be sure, but one that he faced with confidence. That misplaced confidence would be short lived.
First, Coach Tomjonavich, a former cancer survivor, succumbed again to illness. A short time later, injuries to Bryant and Odom would ensure, for the first time in years, that the Lakers would fail to make the postseason.
Perhaps this was understandable, given the team's adversity and strife—losing a championship coach and struggling through injury; however, the Lakers and Kobe soldiered on.
They re-signed Coach Jackson and entered the following season with a degree of familiarity: Jackson's pedigree and not much else. The team was a ragtag group of misfits and made it to the postseason mainly via Kobe's will and desire to prove the naysayers wrong.
After nearly defeating the Phoenix Suns, they became the second team in NBA history to fall leading a series 3-1. The following season, they would again make the postseason, only to be annihilated by those same Suns.
Kobe was outraged. Who could blame him? He was in the prime of his life, surrounded by D-League players—Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and a then very green Andrew Bynum. Additionally, for all of the belief that the versatile Lamar Odom could be the Pippen to Bryant's Jordan, Odom wasn't up to the task.
Bryant's frustration boiled over. He lashed out at the GM and the team. He believed they didn't really care about winning and he wasn't going to stick around rotting away to find out. He flirted with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls, seeking a nucleus of competitors on whom he could count.
GM Mitch Kupchak steadfastly refused to trade Bryant and somehow a miracle happened...young Bynum developed and the Lakers improved.
Although Kobe's numbers were gaudy (including the 81-point game) and many would say MVP-worthy, it wasn't enough for him or the Lakers to advance beyond the first round.
5. Kobe vs. Celtics
The surprising turnaround and development of the team propelled the '08 Lakers into the Finals.
Bryant, along with his new partner Pau Gasol, faced the team's most historically significant rival: the Boston Celtics. Lakers vs. Celtics was a dream come true for the NBA, its advertisers, and most of all, its fans.
The thrill, however, wouldn't last long, as Bryant and his new team would suffer a 39-point thrashing at the hands of the Celtics in Game Six of the '08 NBA Finals.
Making matters worse, a clip surged onto the internet, revealing Shaquille O'Neal rapping freestyle about Bryant's failure to win a title without his help. In one of the more memorable lyrics, O'Neal said, “Tell me how my ass tastes.”
The Celtics raised their 17th banner at the expense of Bryant and the Lakers. O'Neal rubbed salt in the wound of a recently defeated Bryant.
6. Kobe vs. Injury
Bryant has suffered a litany of injuries: a separated shoulder, twisted ankles, a damaged knee on four occasions, a dislocated pinkie, and a broken index finger.
Bryant is nothing else if not tough. His ability to ignore and/or will himself through injuries is unparalleled in the league. There are those who've played more consecutive games, but not with the responsibility and pressure that come with being "the man."
Despite each of these injuries, Bryant has not only overcome the limitations, but occasionally, he and the team have fared better for them.
In the past two seasons (2009 and 2010) alone, Bryant has put off surgery, preferring instead to play through injury.
This year, Bryant played more than half the season with a splint, after suffering an avulsion fracture on his index finger. A host of other injuries included back spasms, a strained elbow, and a knee that had to be drained in the first round of the playoffs.
Coach Jackson said this about Bryant: "The first places players can show leadership is where they make the sacrifices, show the sacrifices....In our situation, Kobe has been playing through injuries that on other teams, in other situations, players might take two to three weeks off. That tells people this is a team on a mission, that it's not just a job, it's a job that requires sacrifice."
He's since had surgery on the knee and for the first time in years has decided to take the summer off from basketball. The latest reports reveal that his index finger is arthritic and may be inoperable because he didn't address it sooner.
7. Kobe vs. Legacy (the future)
Bryant's won five championships as a Laker. The fifth, secured in the 2010 Finals, did a tremendous amount to secure his place as one of the greatest players of all time.
His legacy as a winner is secure, but where does he go from here? Another win and he approaches one of his personal icons—Michael Jordan. He'll become the second alpha dog to three-peat on two occasions.
For all of the bumps and bruises obtained along the way, Bryant has emerged from adversity and personal defeat time and time again. The rings, scoring titles, records, MVP awards, and medals are merely records signifying accomplishments that ring hollow without the wisdom borne of each challenge.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Bryant has suffered the slings and arrows and evolved to become a man. Perhaps the best is yet to come.
There are differences between Bryant and the film, to be sure.
Pilgrim is fighting for love, while Bryant is fighting for the love of the game. Pilgrim is a movie character born of celluloid (literature, actually), whose efforts play out in a darkened theater over two hours on a flickering screen. Bryant is very much a real figure who quickly became larger than life and his exploits have and continue to take place in "real" time, subject to adoration and criticism alike.
One expects that Pilgrim will emerge victorious, defeat the seven evil exes, and walk off into the sunset with his girl—it is a movie, after all. Bryant's story, a page turner in fact, is greater than fiction. It is very much a sublime and organic tapestry woven for the world to see that has not yet reached its conclusion.
As a young Bryant once exclaimed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Basketball is kind of like life....It can get rough at times. You can get knocked on your butt a couple of times. But what you have to do is get up and hold your head high and try again."
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