Last year, in the annual Harris Interactive poll, Kobe Bryant nailed down the top spot on the most popular athlete in America.
Recently, Harris published the 2011 edition, and Kobe fell slightly, from first to third, tied with Michael Jordan.
Still, since Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning were the only two athletes ahead of him in the final poll, Kobe remains the highest-ranking (active) NBA player.
But I don't think that's entirely accurate. I have to believe that right now, Dirk Nowitzki is the most popular player—and not worldwide, but in America as well.
It's not a surprise to learn that Bryant and [LeBron] James have dropped on this list, because popularity in America is often tied to winning at the highest levels. In the past, both players have been divisive, to the point where they've only been considered likable when they win championships. With the Lakers losing to the Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs, Bryant is no longer the league's golden god.
So in some way, Dirk has stolen some of that "golden god" status just by being the figurehead and star of the most recent NBA champion.
But I think there's also just a natural likability about a player who spent so long chasing that first title as opposed to someone winning their fourth or fifth. There's something "new" about Dirk now that he has shed the labels of being a choker or a non-winner and even being "soft"—playing with the flu is part of that, but so too is the fact that he did get to the basket repeatedly in the win over Miami.
Look at John Elway—he was often ridiculed for failing in three Super Bowls ,but by winning one after all that criticism, he soared up the charts in terms of popularity.
And look at what happened with Darren Clarke winning the British Open yesterday. He is a likable guy who has had several chances but never "won the big one," but finally did.
I think Dirk has similar qualities: He's certainly not "controversial" like Kobe has been in the past or LeBron is today. And there is some underdog feel to his legacy.
The bottom line is that all these rankings are superficial and a horribly inaccurate science. But while Kobe wins the "most popular NBA player" award, it's hard to say that no matter what the math says, he did so in a landslide.
After all, a guy who hasn't suited up his shoes (literally, his shoes) since 2003, i.e. Michael Jordan, is tied with Kobe on this list.
That's enough to declare Kobe's victory here a bit shaky.