Friday, May 29, 2009

Diversions: The Villainy of Kobe Bryant

Last week, I put an opinion piece up on Bleacher Report* speaking to the dirtiness of Kobe Bryant. If you are interested, the article can be read here.

*About two weeks ago, I was approached by, Max Tcheyan, one of the Team Members at Bleacher Report, inquiring as to whether I'd be interested in having the content that I write for Royalscentricity essentially reprinted there. Syndication in this no-pay world that is the internet. From what I can tell, anyone can write an article at Bleacher Report, but I could be wrong. At the very least, the invite was a flattering one and does give me more exposure. After all, I'm all about raising my profile...

Now much of the reaction to the piece is expectantly from Lakers fans, who were predictably indignant when faced with the opinion of a non-fan calling into question (what can essentially be boiled down to) the class of their superstar. I get their reaction. It is not informed by objectivity in the least, but I understand a person bristling at the suggestion that someone else might suggest that the play of their favorite player might be anything less than wholesome.

Now, rather than beat the horse (I'll not call that horse dead quite yet) more, I'd like to look at the issue of the polarization that Kobe Bryant brings about in fans.

As I would count myself amongst his "haters", I cannot count myself as objective either, but I am not so interested making a case for his villainy. It isn't the case for or against him that interests me; it is what drives fans to feel the way they do.

First and foremost, it is hard to root for the spoiled rich kid. We all resent them. The lifestyle that Kobe lived as a child was that of the son of a professional basketball player in Europe. Sure, the money wasn't American pro basketball player money, but the actual financial status that was or was not present is irrelevant. The perception is that of child of professional athlete growing up in Europe, living the life of a jet-setter.

Where he may or may not have been spoiled as a child, he was certainly spoiled early by the success he enjoyed in his career, but that success was not without its own fodder for his detractors. The three rings adorning Kobe Bryant's fingers were earned while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal, who at his peak was the most dominant force in basketball. With the inimitable Shaqtus at his side, it seemed the sky was the limit, but their egos began to clash, they went their separate ways, and Shaq won another ring with a younger, more selfless version of Kobe Bryant. Shaq's fourth ring further underscored a groundswell of skepticism as to Kobe's role in winning those rings. Obviously, he was integral to the success of those Lakers teams, but was he the most integral part of this team.

Closely associated with this issue is the fact that his success came so early that amongst many traditionalists, Kobe Bryant did not pay his dues. The other greats in league history needed to climb the mountain. Kobe, thanks to a crew of teammates who had been climbing that mountain, skipped a few steps. This, of course, leads to a degree of resentment from many. Perhaps were his role different on that team--if he were the workmanlike big man or the selfless point guard--the perception would be altered, but the high-flying shooting guard not especially known for making his teammates better* (at the point when he was winning his rings) is not an easy player to like.

*This was the knock on him in those first post-Shaq years.

This is especially true when said player is being crowned the next Michael Jordan.

And there is the linchpin to the whole situation, really.

A whippersnapper with three rings on his fingers who was at least arguably the second best player on his team is being considered the heir to Michael Jordan's legacy. Michael Jordan protectionists would not stand for that. I would venture to guess that somewhere around two-thirds of Michael Jordan fans loathe Kobe Bryant.

The three early rings worried the Devotees of the Original Number 23. The fact that the threat to The Legacy was not the undisputed leader of the team, or even the undisputed best player on the team--leadership be damned--was unpalatable to the Jordan fan. No one earned his rings more than Michael Jordan earned his six. As fear of more accumulated rings mounted amongst the Acolytes of Air Jordan, the ire focused towards Kobe Bryant grew. The fact that those three rings were won on teams with the force to be reckoned with that was Shaquille O'Neal meant that half of the work towards Jordan's mark was done while standing on the shoulders of a literal giant.

Where the other candidates for Greatest Player in the Game wear their fandom of Jordan on their sleeve (or in King James's case, on his jersey), Kobe went so far as to go one better than Jordan with the number 24.

As Shaq left to win a ring elsewhere, Kobe Bryant, whose reputation had already been tarnished by an allegation of rape while being married, began to pull primadonna move after primadonna move. He demanded to be traded. He publicly entertained committing career suicide by talking about a desire to play for the crosstown Clippers. He derided his lesser teammates. He got suspended multiple times for end of game cheap shots against players who would never dare strike back.

It took years for him to get back to where he had been, but the perception of threat was still there. Along the way, he carried himself like a petulant child. The class inherent in Jordan was seemingly absent in the one attempting to pass him by.

These things do not sit well with many fans. They certainly do not sit well with Jordan Protectionists.

And Kobe Bryant finds himself polarizing fans to a Barry Bondsian degree.

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