The best player on the defending champions is usually seen as the best player in basketball—from Bird and Magic in the 80’s to Jordan in the 90’s, with Hakeem sneaking in for a brief stretch during Jordan’s baseball hiatus.
After MJ’s second retirement, Phil Jackson moved to LA and started a new dynasty. A love-able giant became the face of the NBA, a 350-plus lb. force of nature with a combination of size, athletic ability and skill unseen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain.
The Lakers won three straight championships, with Shaq playing the role of Mufasa in the Lion King, ruling the league with a series of unstoppable post moves. But underneath, all was not well. Little brother wanted a shot at the throne.
The character of Scar lived in his big brother’s shadow at the start of the movie. And from his point of view, it was a terribly unjust situation. He was the smart brother— “born with the lion’s share of the brains in the family”—yet he had to cower before Mufasa’s brute strength.
Even worse, with the birth of Simba, Mufasa’s son, he was no longer in line for succession to the throne. His nephew jumped him, not for anything he had done but simply through genetics.
Such is life in an undemocratic system.
Kobe Bryant has yearned to claim the throne of best player in the NBA since he entered the league. He grew up watching Michael Jordan, aping his mannerisms and marketing himself as a competitor with the same killer instinct.
So he worked and worked and worked. No player has gotten more out of his physical talent than Kobe. He’s certainly not the only athletic 6'6" shooting guard to enter the NBA in the last 15 years. But comparable players like Vince Carter lacked his work ethic, his determination and his drive.
Everything someone with a slight 6'6" frame can do a basketball court—shoot, pass, dribble, defend, post-up, run the pick and roll—he can do well. That’s something that only comes from innumerable hours of meticulous practice.
And it’s what made his first seven years in LA so infuriating. All this work and he still had to pay homage to a giant who spent offseasons dressing up like a genie in ridiculous Hollywood movies. A giant who, despite going on to win four championships and three Finals MVP’s, unquestionably didn’t take full advantage of his physical gifts.
As Kobe told a reporter before the 2003 season when asked about Shaq claiming the Lakers as “his team:”
That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape, when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court. I have been successfully sacrificing my game for years for Shaq.
Kobe bought into the myth of the American dream—that hard work alone can get you to the very top. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never be Jordan. He doesn’t have Jordan’s thick frame or his “million dollar hands” (as Phil Jackson called them), which allowed MJ to establish post position and score much closer to the paint.
Kobe has to catch the ball farther away from the basket than Jordan did, so he has to take much more difficult shots. It’s the main reason why Jordan was a career 49.7 percent shooter, and Kobe checks in at 45.5 percent.
And as he’s gotten older, he’s spent more time on the perimeter, making impossible shots seem possible. A YouTube search for the phrase “Kobe Bryant amazing shot” comes up with 5,090 results.
In 14 NBA seasons, he’s made and attempted every conceivable (and some not so) shot on a basketball court—over the backboard, falling away with three guys draped over him, sometimes without even seeing the hoop as he shot. He is probably the greatest “HORSE” player of all time.
That’s what makes Kobe so compelling to watch—the degree of difficulty on the shots he takes. When they go in, it’s often breath-taking. But sometimes they don’t.
He’ll have games like Game 7 of the 2010 Finals when he shot 6-24. And you’ll think, man Kobe sure loves to take contested fade-away jumpers.
What’s frustrating is that he knows better. He has one of the highest basketball IQ’s in the league; he knows perfectly well that they’re not necessarily the best shots to take, especially considering the level of talent around him, yet he takes them anyway.
Tex Winter, the architect of the Triangle Offense and Phil Jackson’s assistant for 15 seasons, summed it up perfectly:
"He understands the game. But—and don't misinterpret this—he understands it a lot better than he plays it."
O.K., Tex, so as not to misinterpret: Are you saying that he knows the right thing to do but sometimes chooses not to do it?
"Yup, that's it," says Tex.
That's because Kobe has spent his entire career chasing a role he was never meant to play. For just as he was pushing Shaq out of LA, a new contender to the throne was emerging.
The kid from Akron, Ohio made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior. With physical gifts unseen in league history, he quickly grew into a 6'9", 260 pound man.
Unlike the other preps-to-pros entrants before him, he didn’t have need of an adjustment period to the NBA. Despite entering in one of the most stacked, drafted classes of all time, he was the runaway winner of Rookie of the Year.
He was simultaneously one of the top 5 most athletic and top 5 most skilled players in the league. He was Karl Malone with a 40’ vertical and the ability to play point guard. He didn’t make game-winning jumpers; he made game-winning dunks.
In his second trip to the playoffs, he humbled the Detroit Pistons, proud champions and one of the great defensive teams of the last decade. With the series tied 2-2 and Game 5 hanging in the balance, his team gave him the ball, got out of the way and dared Detroit to stop him. He scored the Cavaliers final 25 points in a double-overtime victory.
He was destined for greatness. Even worse, he knew it. He got a tattoo of the phrase “Chosen One” on his back.
And just like any young and future King, he became arrogant and entitled. While Scar was orchestrating a complex series of alliances with the hyenas and plotting a coup, Simba whined and pouted through the first portion of the movie, declaring mischievously that he "just couldn't wait to be King."
In 2007, Kobe joined LeBron James and the NBA’s next generation of stars in the USA Olympic basketball program. To a man, they were stunned at how hard he worked.
Kobe is the hard-working kid who studied all night to get an A, LeBron the laid-back genius who never even opened his book and got the same grade. After seven seasons in the NBA, LeBron still doesn’t have an effective low-post game, a deficiency that has been glaring for years.
Simba had to be humbled and leave the Pride Lands a nobody before maturing enough to become King. After this summer, for the first time in his career, LeBron’s ascension to the throne no longer seems inevitable.
In a preseason poll of NBA General Managers, the two-time defending MVP received one vote for MVP of the upcoming season. Kevin Durant, the fresh new face of the league, received 20.
Observers have noticed a change. He’s cutting back on the elaborate celebrations of his Cleveland days. In a move fitting of Jordan, he’s re-tweeted racist comments and warned that he’s taken notice of all the hate he’s received for taking his talents to South Beach.
Simba left the Pride Lands in disgrace, without a friend to his name. To regain his kingdom and defeat Scar, he would need the help of some new allies. He had Timon and Pumba; LeBron has Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
So the 2010-2011 season begins with the Chosen One ready to claim what is rightfully his. The current ruler of Pride Rock, entrenched with a fearsome squad of his own, acts unconcerned. Game on.
The war to be a legend has just begun.
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