Kobe Bryant has entered the legacy stage of his career, and the talk around the barber shop and on ESPN's Page 2 these days centers on where he ranks all-time, top five, or top 10. There are a few I'd rank over him—Michael, Magic, Russell, Kareem, Oscar, Wilt, Larry. I'd estimate him somewhere in the same strata as Elgin, Hakeem, West, Shaq and Duncan, although he's nowhere near finished. When its all said and done, he will end up somewhere between 3 and 8, with Jordan and Russell out of reach and the rest a slight possibility.
I've been a defender of Kobe Bryant since his 2002-2003 campaign, after the Lakers had just won three championships in a row. That was when he started to raise eyebrows around the league, and his detractors were in full force. I wasn't participating in the Kobe vs AI debates, as the pattern hadn't emerged to me yet. I thought it was just a Philly connection. But it got pretty heated when Vince Carter entered the picture.
Kobe vs Vince—remember those days? The human highlight reel certainly had his proponents, yet I kept telling the folks who would listen: It ain't about the highlights, it's about the skill set and the decision making. Vince surely had his moments, but he would never be as consistent and reliable because he didn't have a counter to every move. And look at Vince's arms and body, compared to Kobe or even Carmelo Anthony - they look exactly the same as when he first came into the league. He loves basketball, but never dedicated everything he had to making himself better.
Physical dedication aside, it's not just about the heart—that's too abstract—it's about understanding the game, understanding the opponent. Basketball isn't about pre-deciding what you are going to do, but rather, it is about reading the defense and reacting in a split second whether to go left, to step back, or to raise up. It took a while, as Vince is in his own right a hall of famer, but time caught up and Vince faded from the argument.
Next up: Kobe vs T-Mac—now those were the days! T-Mac is the most complete offensive player I've seen outside of Kobe Bryant and the argument was legitimate. He could do everything, counter everything and understood the game. Reading the defense, he destroyed the league in 2002-2003, averaging 32.1 PTS, 6.5 REB and 5.5 AST, statistically the best year I'd seen since Jordan.
When ESPN ran a front page special with two columnists debating who they would take, Kobe or T-Mac, right before a Lakers-Magic matchup, it was on. And for one, I didn't know the answer. The Magic would win the game, and T-Mac had the worst teammates I can remember, and took them to win almost 30 games that year. If he had kept it up, we could be talking about him in the top 10 today.
But with T-Mac, the problem was physical, not mental. Contrary to popular belief, he does not wilt under pressure. He has the second highest playoff scoring average in NBA history and the second best overall average next to Jordan. He once averaged 34/7/8 and usually averages over 30/5/5 in the post-season.
He never took the extra care of that back of his in the off-season: the diet, the ab workouts to protect the back, the strength training. He never made basketball his single preoccupation like Kobe, who slept four hours a day, worked out for eight hours a day in the offseason and could run a mile in 4:30. Unfortunately, injuries caught up with T-Mac and he faded.
And with that void in competition, Colorado happened. Kobe vs Adultery. This was the only incident where I didn't defend Kobe Bryant, although I knew his heart was in the right place—contrition and repentance. He addressed his sin by its proper name on national TV—adultery—and confessed it to his wife in front of the whole world. He sought a minister, and on an interview with Stephen A. Smith talked about God carrying his cross when he found it too heavy a burden.
We tend to cringe at mentions of God in the public sphere, it's like when George W. Bush answered who was his most influential philosopher was with "Jesus Christ. He changed my heart." We wonder, is it real? I say, look at their facial expression—and for a transformed life—and you will know.
I knew that his marriage had a chance of surviving. The haters flocked like vultures, and they do to this day. They say his marriage had no chance. But Kobe is a changed man—he's not Tiger Woods because he looked outward, not inward, for forgiveness and redemption. Humbled and transformed by grace, he opened up. His entire outlook changed. People think it's fake, it's marketing, it's image, etc. But it's been seven years. This guy, after hitting a buzzer-beating winner over Durant in 2007, blushed when heard his name mentioned in the same breath as Elgin. No more mano-y-mano.
It's real, because I know God is real. And his marriage survived. The joy is there, the peace is there. Jordan is chasing the wind these days, gambling and womanizing, but Kobe has found peace.
Then came Kobe vs Wade, worked up to a frenzy by the pro-Shaq media, Shaq's quotes and Wade's Finals MVP over the spineless Mavericks. I was back to work, defending the short-lived memories of haters everywhere, haters who do not understand the game of basketball.
By now, it is obvious Wade is nowhere the player Kobe is. He has a few unstoppable pet moves, but is inconsistent, random, pre-determines his actions and cannot shoot the ball beyond 20 feet. His post-game is underdeveloped, he gambles on defense and as recently exposed, he does not know how to play without the ball in his hands, because he does not understand team offense. Haters were blind to this in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Then came Kobe vs Lebron, and here is the crux of the argument. Haters say Lebron makes teammates better, but that is entirely, flabbergastingly, gratuitously false. Dominating the ball and passing to your teammates for open shots does not make them better. Relegating them to standstill shooters does not make them better. Having good court vision and averaging more assists does not automatically make you the better team player!
To make your teammates better, you have to change their culture, their DNA. You have to make them self-sufficient, better, more confident players. That's what Kobe has learned to do. Look at Smush Parker—he was the starting point for a Lakers team that came within the cusp of beating the Suns—and he fell out of the rotation in Miami the next year. On the other hand, Larry Hughes, first team all-defense and averaging 22 a game in Washington, came to Cleveland, where his career completely vanished.
Lebron plays to his strengths, dominating the ball, while Kobe plays to his teammates strengths, hiding their weaknesses and allowing them to shine and build a career. Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol—they were secondary players before teaming with Kobe, and have become much, much, much better. Shannon Brown. Jordan Farmar, now that he is languishing on the Nets, exposed, understands.
Kobe doesn't have a weakness to his game. He can play off the ball, play within the offense, or take over the game offensively, or lock down the opposing team's best player. Furthermore, when Kobe sits out, his team plays fine, because he has made them better. When Lebron or Wade sit out, their team goes down the crapper, because they had spent their entire time as statues, bowling pins and expendable fouls.
Argument over, because other than that, Lebron has no argument, and even Lebron himself has admitted it. Kobe is the better offensive player, defensive player, clutch player and team player. People who wax poetic about Lebron's athleticism forget Kobe's heyday.
And finally, when Kobe won his fifth championship, he ended Kobe vs Shaq and Kobe vs Duncan debates, although the latter holds some sway in certain circles. Which brings us finally to the present-day argument. As a resident of Los Angeles, I am proud to say that Kobe Bryant will spend his career playing for the Lakers. Boston Green, Chicago Red, San Antonio Gray and Los Angeles Purple and Gold.
The Bottom Line
Competition brings out the best in people, and Kobe Bryant exemplifies this. The competitive fire, professional craft and desire for excellence is an essential component of the dignity of work. It's the same spirit as whenever I take the extra effort to dig through the archives in my research, take a weekend trip to another library, or read the entire book even if only a portion is critical to my work. We want to be the master of our craft, whatever that may be, to go the extra mile when possible.
But there is a trend away from competition in society. No one wants to be on the losing end, so people want to create a society where everyone wins. In many youth sporting events now, everyone gets a trophy, even the losers. Where is the meaning in that? Where is the incentive to excel, to reach new grounds and uncharted territory?
Recently, Lebron and Bosh surrendered their competitive spirit, teaming up with their competitor Wade in Miami to try to take the easiest way possible to a championship. I for one, am glad that there are still ones remaining in the next generation who believe in the dignity of competition and not taking the easy way out—Kevin Durant quipped that not everyone wants to be in Miami.
And finally, competition is not mean spirited. It is not meant to harm or paralyze the opposition, unless it is upheld in a perverse way. Rather, it brings out the best in everyone. Along the way, there is the risk of failure, but that risk is what makes the journey, as Kobe Bryant 's oft-used analogy goes, that much more exciting.