Kobe Bryant: The Most Underappreciated Athlete in Sports

Marcel SmithSenior Analyst IMay 31, 2009

DENVER - MAY 29:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second half against the Denver Nuggets in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on May 29, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

After a dominant performance last night, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

Kobe first dominated the game with his passing in the first half.

He took the multiple double teams, the Nuggets threw at him and passed it to either Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol, or Derek Fisher for open shots, which allowed them to get into a rhythm early, and play with confidence on the road in an extremely hostile environment. 

As the first half was ending, and Lakers up by a few points, Kobe took over the game with his amazing scoring ability.

With three minutes and nine seconds left in the first half, and Los Angeles leading 37-to-33, Kobe scored 11 points, and assisted on an Ariza three-point shot, which was his sixth of the game.

Finally, after he hit a three with four seconds left to put the score to 53-to-40, he blocks Carmelo Anthony's layup attempt right as the buzzer rang.

During the second half, Kobe continued to dominate with both his brilliant passing and scoring. He ended the game with 35 points, 10 assists and six rebounds while shooting an impressive 12-of-20 from the field, and a perfect 9-of-9 from the free-throw line.

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But it wasn't just his great numbers that led the Lakers to a rout in one of the hardest places to play in the league. It was his great leadership-he trusted his team-mates numerous times, and supported them when they succeeded.

It was also when he talks with Pau Gasol after Chauncey Billups hits him with a flagrant foul to support and calm him down. He was coaching and motivating his team-mates during time outs to make sure they continue to have no mercy.

Besides Kobe being one of the most-skilled and greatest players of all time, his hard work, passion for winning, and leadership skills are tremendously underrated.

Throughout his amazing career, Kobe has been underrated because so many people dislike him. When he was a kid, they said he wasn't as good as he looked because he played with Shaq.

After Shaq left, they said he couldn't lead a team deep into the playoffs and make his team-mates better.

Then, after Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat, all of his critics and haters blamed him solely for not being able to play with Shaq. Even though everyone with that opinion knows that Michael Jordan also wouldn't have been able to play with such a dominant figure like Shaq.

They don't understand that it was legendary owner Jerry Buss' decision to trade Shaq because he didn't want to pay $30 million a year to an aging, lazy and overweight big man, who missed several games each year.

Even in the 2005/2006 season, when he led a team with Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup along with the enormously inconsistent Lamar Odom to a 45-win season and the sixth best record in one of the most competitive conferences in the history, they said he shot too much, and that he was a ball hog because he averaged 35.4 points per game and 27 shots per game.

The major weakness that critics claim Kobe has is his lack of ability to make his team-mates better, which is completely false.

Smush Parker was a respectable starter when he played with Kobe, but when he left he was waived by the worst team in league at the time-the Miami Heat, and hasn't been able to play since.

Kwame Brown had his best years when he played with Kobe, and now since he was traded, he can't even play significant minutes with the Pistons. 

Andrew Bynum became a much better and confident player the last two seasons when he was healthy because Kobe made a concerted effort to get him the ball where he could be effective.

Lamar Odom has been his best and most efficient in his career when he played with Kobe, and the same goes with Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza. 

Despite these facts, Kobe is always compared to Michael Jordan, who didn't make his team-mates better as well as Kobe has.

Scottie Pippen's best season was the year after Jordan first retired. Pippen averaged 22 points, nine rebounds, 5.6 assists, three steals and one block while shooting 49 percent from the field, and finished third in the MVP voting.

He would have led the Bulls to the East Finals, if he had not been called for arguable foul on Hubert Davis with two seconds left in Game Five of the East Semifinals, and the Bulls up by one. But instead the Bulls lost in seven games to the Knicks.

Horace Grant became an All Star that season as well without Jordan or Dennis Rodman. He didn't become better when he played with Jordan.

Toni Kukoc's best season was the 1998/1999, after Jordan had his second retirement.

The second major weakness that Kobe's haters claim is that he is a bad team-mate. While Kobe was a bit of a loner in the beginning of his career, he was never a bad team-mate.

He was always intense during practice, which made his team-mates become better players.However, Kobe has been both tough on his team-mates when they failed and supportive.

Jordan was a worse team-mate than Kobe was, despite his great image because of the way the media pampers him. Kobe never punched a team-mate in practice like Jordan did to both Steve Kerr and Will Perdue (he got upset and he ran coach Doug Collins because he wanted the ball more, compared to the team oriented style Collins preferred).

However, the most telling thing to show how bad of a team-mate Jordan was is to see how he treated Kwame Brown when he was with the Washington Wizards.

Jordan had come back and was still a very good player, but past his prime. However, he was in a scenario where he could improve a young and rebuilding Wizards team with a talented first pick in Kwame Brown. 

Instead of supporting him and trying to lift up Brown's spirits after some struggles, Jordan called him "a flaming faggot". He used several other derogative words towards Brown,  which destroyed his confidence as he most likely idolized Jordan.

This shows that even after his prime, when it shouldn't have been all about him, Jordan only cared about himself, and didn't care at all about his team-mates. 

Jordan's attitude towards Kwame is one of the major reasons why he became a huge bust as he has always lacked the confidence and toughness to become successful. A lot of that comes from the way Jordan treated him when he was such a young, unpolished, and inexperienced player with the pressure of an entire franchise on his shoulders. 

After the 2006/2007 season when Kobe's Lakers lost again to the Phoenix Suns in the first round (because of a severe lack of talent around him), after three years with the Lakers, Bryant demanded to get traded. 

He felt betrayed by management that had promised to build a championship team but instead they did not, as they never made a major trade to improve the team. They drafted a 17-year-old project with their 10th overall pick in Andrew Bynum, instead of selecting a player that could make an impact sooner. 

The immediate reaction nationally after Kobe's trade demand was that he was selfish and disloyal because the Lakers were so loyal to him during his Sexual Assault case a few years prior.

However, what no one realized was that Kobe's passion and drive towards winning was too big for him to allow management to not improve their performance by continuing to wait without pressuring them to do so. 

Instead of being like nearly every other superstar in professional sports, who in his situation on a mediocre team would not kill themselves over their team every single game, and not care about the team's performance because they were getting paid around $20 million per year, Kobe expected greatness from his management just like he did everyday he worked so hard for himself. 

So far in his legendary career, Kobe Bryant has won three NBA Championships, and has advanced to the NBA six times.

He is already 17th all time with 23,820 career points, he has 11 All Star appearances with three All Star Game MVP awards, 11 All NBA appearances, with seven of them as a member of the first team, nine All NBA Defensive team selections, with seven of them as a member of the first team and one MVP award.

He is arguably the most skilled player to ever play the game with enormous array of moves, an amazing post game for his size, an extremely long range, an ability to finish with both arms, a lock down mid range game, and finally his amazing footwork.

On the top of that, he is one of the best perimeter one-on-one defenders ever, he is one of the smartest players ever, and he is as competitive, intense, and clutch as anyone ever.

As a die hard Kobe and Lakers fan, I cherish this moment as in just a couple of weeks, Kobe will lead the Lakers to their first title since Shaq's trade and Kobe's fourth overall as he chases Jordan's six.

This year will definitely be different from last year as Orlando and Cleveland aren't nearly as good as last year's Celtics, and this year's Lakers are much more experienced, tougher and deeper than last year's team that fell two games short of the title.

Personally, I love Kobe as a player because he works as hard as any player ever to get better, and master every area of the game with his extreme dedication towards greatness.

He has a great deal of immense competitiveness, where he never takes a game off even if it isn't an important game in the regular season.

He has no weakness in his game as he is dominant offensively and defensively, and is extremely clutch at the end of games when it matters the most.

He understands and appreciates the history of the game, and all of the legends that made it easier for him to be successful. His toughness to play at a high level even with any injury possible-whether it is a sprained shoulder, a dislocated finger, or any sickness-is something I admire.

Hate him or love him, you should appreciate Kobe for being the hardest working athlete in all of professional sports, the toughest and arguably the best because of his passion for winning, and his mastery of every aspect of basketball at both ends of the floor.

You should also appreciate him for being a pretty good team-mate, who never had a game where he didn't give 100 percent, and played through numerous injuries most athletes wouldn't bother playing with. 

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