The Kobe Problem
By Adam Hoff
Unless you were orbiting the moon for the past week, you know all about the recent Kobe Incident. Game Seven, second half, down by 20 … and he pretty much stopped playing. Did he quit? Was he trying to make a point? Was he looking to ensure that his crappy teammates got all the blame? Was he simply following the game plan (as he claimed)? There are a lot of ways to interpret this situation. The problem is that you can’t simply examine the situation and write about it without “having an agenda” or being a “Kobe Hater.” Bryant is such a polarizing player and alienating force that you can’t critique his actions or question his motives the way you would with any other player. This is the Kobe Problem.
A few years ago (seems like a lifetime), Kobe was a rising star and one of the NBA’s golden boys. The son of a former player, able to speak another language, possessing great skill, and playing for one of the most storied franchises in the sport … it all added up to a great packaged product. During those days, there were things about Kobe that absolutely infuriated me. He always seemed so contrived and calculating, like everything had been plotted out in advance. He would help guys off the floor when he camera was on him, making a big show of it. He would always seem to suffer an injury at a key moment, yet “somehow” play through it on his way to a dramatic moment – complete with exaggerated limping and posturing for the cameras. To quote “Fight Club,” everything about Kobe seemed like a copy, of a copy, of a copy. More specifically, everything about him seemed like it was torn straight out of the “How to be like Michael Jordan” playbook. It is as if he saw the “Flu Game” and decided that he would replicate the feat, only he tried to do it about 15 times.
In addition to those annoying traits, I always got the impression that Kobe cared more about himself than anyone else. I received first-hand confirmation of this in the form of a story about Kobe refusing to sign memorabilia for kids with cancer, saying instead, “You wish.” It all added up to me being pretty hard on him in my column. The response to that? People would email and say that I was “just jealous” or “a Laker hater.” Either that or they would argue my points with their own view, which is the whole idea. Nobody every accused me of being part of some Bryant smear campaign or belonging to the legion of “Kobe Haters,” because those things didn’t exist.
Then Eagle, Colorado happened. The rape charges, the flying back and forth for the trial, the Shaq feud, the Phil Jackson book, the stories in Time and Newsweek that revealed Bryant’s dark side … it all happened in a rush. Suddenly, Kobe Bryant was no longer the golden boy; he was Public Enemy Number One. An enormous segment of the sports media and general population turned on him at that moment.
Many of those people have come rushing back to his side over the past two years. Lakers fans that claim, “as long as he wins games, I don’t care what he’s like as a person,” media members that saw the dismissal of the rape trial as the end of any scrutiny of Bryant’s character, and all the people with extremely short memories who will forgive and forget at the first sight of an 81-point game. For a pretty large group, it was as if all the stories and features that revealed Kobe’s character had never happened. Either that, or they just didn’t care. This is, after all, America – the land of the free and the home of fans and media members that openly worship Ray Lewis despite the fact that he was indicted murder after kicking in a man’s skull. Stories about Kobe being cold and calculating, or a little bit spoiled? Please, that is nothing. “Let’s move on!” seemed to be the rallying cry of many.
However, there is another group that hasn’t been able to let all of that stuff go. Maybe they were like me, and something about Kobe always nagged at them. Perhaps the posturing and preening and contrived mannerisms stirred up a strong dislike that suddenly got some serious traction during the Eagle incident (and the investigations into Bryant’s life and personality that followed). Or maybe they refuse to believe in the “innocent until proven guilty” construct that exists in the United States legal system. It could be that they simply don’t like a guy that runs people out of town and tries to manipulate his team. Whatever. The point is that an anti-Kobe sentiment exists, and it is far larger and stronger than it was pre-Eagle. This is the foundation of the Kobe Problem.
Before Eagle, I could pick someone else for MVP without getting 100 emails accusing me of having it out for Bryant. Before Eagle, Charles Barkley could go on camera and accuse Kobe of being selfish for trying to prove a point in Game Seven without being accused off having an agenda. However, after Eagle, none of that is possible. Now, if you dare to criticize Kobe Bryant, you “have it out for him.” You are “holding his rape charges against him.” You are a “Kobe Hater.”
You can see why this is problematic. Because one player has been so alienating as a person, you can no longer question him as a player. Obviously, this seems a little bizarre. Because if we are being honest about Game Seven, there is no way that Kobe wasn’t doing something strange. A few days after the Kobe Incident, the Cavs were down by 25 to a Pistons team that is certainly better than Phoenix, yet they managed to come roaring back down the stretch and make it interesting. Not surprisingly, LeBron scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and led the charge. That is what stars are supposed to do. When the team is disjointed and nothing is working, they are supposed to attack over and over, to try to get to the line, and to try to work a miracle. Did Kobe come out of the locker room on January 22 and refuse to shoot, because the only way his team could come back from a 17-point halftime deficit against the Raptors was to “get everyone involved?” Of course not. He shot pretty much every time down the floor on his way to 55 second-half points and 81 for the game, turning a blowout loss into a 122-104 win.
Obviously, the Suns aren’t the Raptors, but couldn’t he have at least tried? It seems obvious that he let Barkley’s comments from the previous game (when the Chuckster – in a roundabout way – criticized Kobe for shooting too much in Game Six) get to him and he wanted to prove a point. Instead of trying for a repeat of January 22 (and he certainly had the shooting touch going), he opted to show the world what happens when the mighty Kobe doesn’t come to his team’s aid. It wasn’t just the lack of shots, it was the fact that he didn’t do anything. He never drove and set up a teammate, never set a screen, nothing. He just stood 25 feet from the basket and watched.
Had any other player done this, there would be no hesitation to go crazy over this. If Allen Iverson had come strolling out of the locker room, tried to get his teammates going early (which I think is probably true) only to watch the score balloon to a 25-point game, then took three quick shots and missed them all (which happened), and then just lethargically ran up and down the court and refused to shoot … do you think anyone would let him off the hook? Of course not. He would be raked over the coals for quitting on his team, trying to show up his teammates, disrespecting his coach, failing to honor the integrity of the game, high interest rates and anything else that people could think of. But because it is Kobe, things can’t ever be that simple. Passions run too high, opinions are too strong, the anti-Kobe sentiment is too much of a force, and the resistance to that force is too angry and single-minded to stop and wonder if maybe in this instance, he really did screw up.
At this point, there are only those who criticize Kobe for everything and those who support him for everything. There’s no middle ground. It is why you can get Barkley going on the air after the game and calling him out and then coming on a few nights later and revealing that Kobe sent him a bunch of profanity-laced text messages. Basically, Barkley is just burying him. On the other hand, this climate is also why you can have someone like Ric Bucher of ESPN go on the air and say – with a straight face – that Kobe did nothing wrong and that his teammates just let him down. It’s all Kobe Haters and Kobe Apologists and there’s no room for anyone that just wants to call it like they see it.
And so the Kobe Problem persists with no end in sight.