Monday, June 15, 2009

Black Mamba's Championship: What Should We Tell the Children?

Monday morning, after the Lakers clinched their fifteenth NBA title (they count all of those ones from the Minneapolis years, huh?) in anti-climactic fashion, all manner of basketball writers were anointing Kobe Bryant with hyperbole. Mark Jackson even said, "He has no flaws as a basketball player." Over and over we had to hear how driven Kobe was, how he had bent his more selfish impulses to fit into the team concept. He was deified for...playing the game the way it is supposed to be played.

Part of the myth Kobe cashed in on was, of course, that he had become older and wiser. He was the alpha-dog on this team--this was his first title as the guy--but he had learned from things like not even making the playoffs in 2005 that this was a team game in the end.

Sure, he had won three championships early in his career, but those were really Shaq's teams. If anything, Kobe and Shaq were the co-captains. Those teams don't count because he...passed the ball and deferred to Shaq, playing the game the way it is supposed to be played?

If you were to believe what you're told, to validate himself as a historically great player--his destiny all along--he had to win a title as the team's unquestionable star. And it was impossible to win a title the way he became a star.

Hiding a boner.

You know all of this, but has anyone questioned what a mixed message that is? When he won championships as a team player, Kobe wasn't ready for prime time. Then, because of the selfish way he played in the middle part of the decade, Kobe became a superstar, arguably the best in the game. But until he won a championship in that role, he wouldn't be considered great enough. So he reverts back to being a team player and wins a championship. Where are we now? I'm bad with syllogisms.

Is basketball a team game or not? Apparently, Kobe has "solved the mystery" and "figured it out" and "gotten it" that he can't drive to the basket on a one-on-four break. (Oh wait, he did that in game three.) As a result, he won a championship. But, based on the biggest storyline of the NBA Finals, was that championship the realization of his greatness or was it a compromise that made him less than great? In authenticating the legitimacy of his new title, have we made less of the other championships he won as part of a real, well-rounded team?

Like most propositions that Mark Jackson can't condense into a ten-second sound bite, it's a bit of both. If one player could win a championship by himself, LeBron would have been hoisting the Larry O'Brien on Sunday. And there is a difference between Kobe's Finals team last year and Kobe's Finals team this year. (No one talks about how heroic and selfless his teammates are.) I don't mean to demean Mamba at all though. Winning a championship as the go-to guy definitely puts him into a different historical context. If he had lost again this year, his legacy never would have recovered.

So for now, Kobe actually can have the best of both worlds: he gets all the individual accolades while winning a ring as a team player. He can bask in this dichotomous glow until this summer, when he has the opportunity to exercise a player option and sign with another team. Then we'll finally know who the real Kobe Bryant is. Or maybe what makes him so compelling is that we'll never know.

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