I feel like Kobe Bryant is one of the most unique athletes in sports – he will finish his career as one of the best basketball players to ever play the game, yet his years in the NBA has been marked with constant scrutiny and criticism like no other athlete before who has accomplished so much (Don’t get me wrong, Kobe is one of the most popular athletes in the world, but he is also one of the most hated). I read Phil Jackson’s The Last Season back in its release in 2004 and decided to read it again this past week. The two separate readings played out like a bad break up. After the first read, when all the events just took place, I was sad and thought about all of the terrible fights, bad times, and things that could have been if it just worked out. After the second reading, 8 years later, I looked back and realized it was best for the two to go their separate ways and now only remember the good memories that took place when they were together.
Anyway, I know Kobe could care less what people think about him, but as one of his biggest fans… Well, I DO CARE. So I felt compelled to write this piece, not to defend him, but to at least try to clear things up. If you are a hater of Kobe Bryant, I do not intend to change your mind; you may like him a little more after this piece, you may hate him more. That’s fine. What I do hope is that you will respect him. So, here goes nothing.
Typically in sports, winning heals old wounds and silences the doubters (at least temporarily). However, this is not the case for Kobe Bryant. Even after winning five championships (to put that in perspective, no other NBA franchise besides the Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls has five or more championships) Kobe has been scrutinized for either his play on the court, acts off the court, or both. On the court, he’s been criticized for being selfish, shooting too much, and not being a team player his entire career, both by “fans” and “professional analysts” of the game. If that’s not enough, he’s attacked for not having as many championships as Michael Jordan or MVP’s as LeBron James. Some even go as far as breaking down and comparing the numbers: the field goal percentages, assists per game, who has more game winning shots, etc. Whatever Kobe has done, it is never enough.
In addition, Kobe has been linked to many incidents that have deteriorated his image in the past: the departure of Shaq and Phil Jackson, accused of rape in 2003, demanding a trade from the Lakers in 2007, and openly criticizing Lakers management for not trading Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd that same year. Many critics and “haters” of Kobe bring these up as reasons why they dislike this athlete so much, but it seems like there is much more animosity towards Kobe than any other great athlete who has had a troubled image in the past.
For instance, Tiger Woods temporarily left the game of golf when he was attacked by his wife after he was caught cheating (and that’s a euphemism) back in 2009. Michael Vick was caught for fighting, torturing, and killing dogs in 2007. They both eventually made their comeback to their respective sports. Why did we yearn so strongly for them to return to their old selves? Why did our excitement grow more and more with each Vick rushing touch down, every Woods birdie? Why were they granted such room for forgiveness?
Tom Brady’s Patriots were blatantly caught cheating in 2007 for recording the New York Jets’ plays while they were practicing, which threatened the integrity of their coaching staff, yet no one questions the legitimacy of his 3 championships. In 2000 Ray Lewis was accused of murder. Whether or not he actually committed the act may never be determined, but it was definitely committed by someone in his entourage; two people were stabbed to death that night and no one was convicted.
LeBron James wins one championship and suddenly he is vindicated of all doubts. It’s about damn time, right? (*Note: I’ve done my fair share of hating on LeBron, but I absolutely believe he is one of the best talents ever. More on that later.)
Despite his accomplishments, Kobe never has and possibly never will get such a break.
Shaq and Phil
Nearly a decade ago you couldn’t open up an LA Times without finding some sort of drama surrounding Kobe, Shaq, and the Lakers. The stage was set for the perfect storm though, wasn’t it? Two of the game’s biggest stars on one of the most storied franchises set in one of the biggest cities in the country. However, like the media always does, many of the stories covering this feud have been extremely misleading.
For instance, one misconception is that Kobe demanded Shaq and Phil Jackson be gone in order for him to remain a Laker, which is false. Kobe reported that in the middle of the 2004 season, Jerry Buss told him
“I am not going to re-sign Shaq. I am not about to pay him $30 million a year or $80 million over three years. No way in hell. I feel like he’s getting older. His body is breaking down, and I don’t want to pay that money to him when I can get value for him right now rather than wait. This is my decision. It’s independent of you. My mind is made up.”
On the other hand, Phil told management he would not return as coach if the Lakers kept Kobe because he felt he was “uncoachable.” Kobe and Phil were at the end of their contracts after 2004, while Shaq was demanding an increased pay raise and contract extension that same year. Lakers management knew they could only go in one of two directions: keep Kobe or Shaq and Phil. Having ended all contract talks with Shaq and Phil around the All-star game in 2004, it appeared the Lakers have made up their mind long before Kobe’s free agency. Now, looking back 8 years later, it seems like the Lakers made the best move possible.
Although Shaq was still the best center in the league at the time, Dr. Jerry Buss weighed his options; 2-3 more years of a dominant Shaq or 7 more years of a dominant Kobe? Shaq would eventually win one more championship with the Miami Heat, but it took one Dallas Maverick meltdown, 3 referees, and 73 Dwyane Wade free throws (in the span of 4 games – 18 FTA per game!) to accomplish that feat. Every year since being traded from the Lakers, Shaq’s numbers and effectiveness began to deteriorate while the injuries continued to pile up. Kobe, on the other hand, would establish himself as a franchise player, reaching the NBA finals 3 times, winning two, and is still in the hunt for at least one more while Shaq can only watch from a TNT studio.
While I love Shaq and thank him for helping us win 3 consecutive championships, there are many mistakes he made that are often overlooked and/or forgotten. One in particular is his work ethic. Kobe openly criticized Shaq for being lazy. At first this appears to be just another “Kobe-Shaq feud” kind of comment, but the issue was also brought up in 2008 when Pat Riley accused Shaq of faking an injury, eventually leading to his trade to the Phoenix Suns that same season. Even Phil Jackson has been quoted to say, “The only person I’ve ever had that hasn’t been a worker in the fortunate times I’ve been coaching is probably Shaq.”
His poor work habits may have cost the Lakers its fourth consecutive championship. In the summer of 2002, Shaq decided to wait until right before the start of training camp to have surgery on his toe, stating “I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time.” He would go on to miss the first 12 games and enter the season out of shape. Consequently, the Lakers started the season 11-19. Although the Lakers would finish 50-32, it was only good enough for fifth place in the Western conference standings. They then fell to the Spurs in the second round in 6 games. Would the Lakers have been able to take down the Spurs if they had home court advantage in the series? Possibly. We will never know. But by not having surgery and returning in top shape as soon as possible, Shaq stripped the Lakers of its best possible chance to 4-peat (Would we still hear about this today if Kobe pulled off such a stunt? I’m not sure, but a decade later people still call him a rapist, so probably).
Kobe Bryant, on the other hand, is known for his unbelievable work ethic and always underplays any injuries he may have. In the summer of 2006 he did a routine called the 666 workout: 6 hours a day (2 hours of running, 2 hours of basketball, 1 hour of cardio, 1 hour of weights), 6 days a week, for 6 months. In 2007 he dropped 20 pounds in order to maintain his quickness. He’s played with bad knees, broken fingers, and torn ligaments with zero complaints (Kobe doesn’t make excuses, he tapes them up).
In 2004, Kobe spent much of the playoffs flying back and forth between a court in Colorado and a court in the NBA. Despite having to worry about whether or not he would be a free man in the next few weeks, he played brilliantly in the playoffs. In game 5 against the Spurs, Kobe played 47 minutes. His go ahead bucket with 11 seconds remaining is often overlooked by the amazing Tim Duncan and Derek Fisher shots that followed right after. In the locker room Kobe congratulated Fisher, saying “You little mother f*cker. Way to kick their ass.” A few minutes later he fainted due to exhaustion and his eyes began to roll back behind his head. He had to be carried to the trainers table and have two IV’s attached to his arm. With no cameras in sight or any fans in view, little people know about this incident. It is moments like these that exemplify how much Kobe exhausts to get a W. Unfortunately, there won’t be any Gatorade commercials about this one.
Part II coming soon.