Kobe Bryant: The Most Polarizing Figure in Sports

Robert GardnerSenior Analyst IOctober 12, 2009

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses during Lakers media day at the Lakers training facility on September 29, 2009 in El Segundo, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

There are two words out there that, when uttered, draw two very distinct and different reactions. Words that when spoken will either conjure up images of greatness and leadership, or images of selfishness and arrogance. Those two words are Kobe Bryant.

Without question Bryant is the most polarizing figure in professional athletics. When it comes to Kobe there is little gray area in how he is viewed—either you see him as one of the greatest to ever play the game, or you see him as an overrated ball-hog with a questionable past.

How is it that a person can draw such distinct reactions in the eyes of fans?

Perhaps it has to do with how he carries himself. Or maybe it is just the team that he plays for. Could the allegations of a stigma past still be looming in the minds of fan?

To answer these questions we must first take a look at Kobe Bryant the man and understand where it is he came from.

Kobe is the son of former NBA journeyman and international player “Jellybean” Joe Bryant. Kobe grew up eating, sleeping, and breathing basketball. By his third birthday he was already telling people that he would be a star in the NBA.

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Kobe’s father could never find his stride in the NBA and eventually packed up the family and headed overseas to continue his career.

The majority of Kobe’s time outside of school revolved around his father and their shared love of basketball. Kobe attending many of the afternoon practices, he would study and mimic the moves of his father on the court.

Kobe and his father would also spend countless hours watching the tapes of recorded NBA games that his grandparents would send to them. Watching games with his father taught Kobe how to see the whole court and how the read the action as it was taking place.

Outside of summers in the U.S. playing in basketball leagues, much of Kobe’s young life was spent in Europe attending international schools and spending time with his family, so when his father retired and the Bryant’s made a permanent move back to the U.S., the transition was difficult.

Kobe would have no problem finding his place on the court but outside of basketball Kobe struggled to adjust and find a common ground with his classmates. Life in Europe had sheltered Kobe from the temptations and pressures faced by teenagers in the US.

Kobe’s breakout year on the court came during his junior year when he averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists. Following that season, he would also be named Pennsylvania Player of the Year.

All signs were pointing towards college for Kobe, who had excellent grades and test scores, until Kevin Garnett went in the first round of the NBA draft. It would be that moment when Kobe would begin to seriously consider making the jump straight to the pros.

Kobe went on to finish his high school career by winning a state title, averaging 30.8 points per game his senior year, and shattering Wilt Chamberlin’s Pennsylvania schoolboy points total record.

We all know what happened next. Kobe would be drafted by the Hornets at No. 13, then would be traded to the Lakers where he would be teamed up with Shaq and would eventually go on to win three titles before the age of 24.

Fast forward to the summer of 2003, Kobe and his meticulously cultivated image would be under the fire of sexual assault accusations. These accusations lead to a very public and humiliating downfall for the young superstar. Even though the case crumbled before it ever went to trial, the blow to his marketing appeal would be fatal.

Jump ahead to 2004, where it is painted by the media that Kobe singlehandedly dismantled the Laker dynasty.  Following the 2003-2004 campaign, Phil Jackson resigned and Shaq was shipped off to Miami.

While Kobe’s image continued to take hits, his performance on the court continued to evolve as he became the face of the franchise. Kobe had to learn when and how to carry the team, the team that was now his.

That brings us to today.

Kobe’s journey to this point has seen him go from growing up in a foreign land to high school phenom, from lottery pick to champion, from potential sex offender to MVP.

It is Kobe’s journey that has made him what he is today, and it is that journey that has created this polarization. Much of this polarization comes from the fact that there are many fans out there that fail to give Kobe the credit and respect that his accomplishments deserve, and there are many fans that build Kobe to the level of idolatry.

Kobe’s polarizing force is stemmed in the comparisons to Michael Jordan.

Kobe Bryant is never going to receive the love and admiration from the masses that Michael Jordan received. Kobe Bryant is never going to be Michael Jordan.

Kobe is every bit as talented as Michael and their skill sets are surprisingly similar, but Kobe is Kobe and Michael is Michael.

To continually compare the two is unfair to both.

Michael Jordan globalized the sport of basketball and brought it to where it is today.

Hasn’t Kobe done enough to stand alone and judged based on his own merit and accomplishments? Kobe at least deserves that respect.