As Kobe hones in on title #4, his supporters are applying the tanning oil in preparation of basking in his glory. It has been seven long years since title #3, and the non-stop chatter about his failure to win a championship without big brother can finally come to an end. To rest can go the argument that his supposed me-first attitude would preclude his teams from winning the ultimate prize. To them (or us, depending on how you see it), Kobe's greatness will finally be undeniable even to the harshest of critics.
Kobe's naysayers, meanwhile, are plotting their angle of attack, brainstorming the ways to undermine his accomplishments and deny his greatness. In actuality, denying his greatness has never been an approach of the naysayers. The chosen approach has generally been to attack Kobe by claiming others are, or were, greater. Even as an outspoken pro-Kobeist, I have never been bothered by this form of "criticism." To me, attacking a player because he falls just short of the greatest ever (M.J.) or the to-be greatest ever (Lebron) isn't criticism at all. It is actually cleverly-disguised praise. To even include Kobe in that conversation with the Jordans, the Magics, the Lebrons, is to concede that he is one of the greatest players to ever play this game.
To reuse the most overused descriptor of Kobe's blossoming legacy, Kobe is downright polarizing. The most polarizing player in all of professional sports, in fact. Ever. In my tenure as a fan, which has included tedious study of the game's forefathers, I have never witnessed or heard of a player who elicited such extreme reactions from fans, who commanded such love & respect while also giving rise to such ill will and hate. He is the individualized New York Yankees.
Since the day Jerry West took that prophetic leap of faith in bringing the young Kobe Bryant to L.A., I have watched closely. As I have studied Kobe Bryant the man, Kobe Bryant the player, Kobe Bryant the public figure, I have witnessed the most primitive yet remarkable transformations. His career thus far can be broken down into four chapters, each of which I feel compelled to expand upon below.
Growing Pains (1996-1999)
When Kobe entered the league as a confused, young kid with a crater-sized chip on his shoulder, I found him to be immature (even for his age). He was at one moment an innocent prototype and the next a conceded egoist. Young Kobe fumbled over words in interviews but had the confidence to seize the moment before his game was polished enough to do so. The commingling of his confidence and his insecurity was perhaps summarized best by his three airball performance in the waning moments against Utah in the 1997 playoffs. A bench player at the time, Kobe stepped into these shots like he was a go-to-guy and singlehandedly wrecked the Lakers' season.
In the early years, Kobe's childlike charm was often overshadowed by an unwarranted arrogance. This was the formula for his polarizing effect on fans. This set the stage for the two camps we are familiar with today: the Kobe-lovers and the Kobe-haters. What made him endearing to many made him despicable to many more. The lovers voted him in as an all-star starter when he was the sixth man for his own team. The haters provided boos and mockery at each opposing arena he set foot in. Nearly thirteen years later, most people haven't wavered from their initial loyalties to these camps.
As Bryant's game developed in seasons two and three, we were exposed to the monster that lived within him. His unquenchable thirst for perfection and unhealthy need for acceptance isolated him from teammates and fan base. Kobe was not misunderstood by the fans so much as he was misunderstood by himself. He tried so desperately to win the favor and respect of the basketball world that he failed to understand what it would take to be embraced. The failure to make ends with humanity meet did not come without effort. Kobe was beyond impressionable, to the point that he released a rap song when he heard he had no street cred, praised M.J. when he heard he was a two-three imposter, and fed Shaq when he heard he was a ballhog. Sometimes too much is not enough -- Kobe dug his own public relations grave through these futile attempts.
Blemished Supremacy (1999-2003)
By the time the 1999-2000 season rolled around, Kobe had exhausted all efforts to be the NBA's poster boy. Kobe turned his cheek to the criticism, embarking on a journey to prove all naysayers wrong. In the process, he had built a mini-dynasty on the cape of a in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal.
Bryant must have thought that winning would bridge the gap between unimpressed fan and devoid Kobe. Kobe the competitor was birthed out of his undisguised worship of Michael Jordan (trust me, Kobe's mannerisms and career track offer undeniable proof that his steps were paved by the observance of His Airness), and he saw the fan-filled fruit that was cultivated by Jordan's championships. I can't say I blame him.
Three championships later, Kobe's public persona had only experienced subtle changes. The three-peat stimulated talk of basketball immortality, but his character flaws and the looming shadow of Shaq dwarfed the level of respect that he should have received. Winning soon became habit more than fulfilling, and a rift between the two stars left most on the lovable giant's side. This was the beginning of the end for the Shaq-Kobe duo and the Lakers' spot at the top of the hill.
After the threepeat, winning was not enough for Kobe. He had to be revered as the best player in the league, but first he had to be revered as the best player on his team. For the first time since pre-2000 Kobe, we saw his stubborn side again. Consequently, Kobe's Lakers were upended in the NBA Finals by a far less talented Detroit squad. Team's triumph over individual led many to believe that Kobe was a cancerous presence for the purple & gold. Upon Shaq's departure and subsequent success in Miami, these beliefs were strengthened and perpetuated by the media. By this time, he held the undisputed title of best two guard in basketball, but was excommunicated after legal troubles and a lack of winning without the Diesel.
Despite all of his individual accomplishments, Kobe was also without the ultimate individual accolade: an MVP trophy. It is hard to say whether he was more bothered by the losing or by watching Steve Nash hoist back-to-back MVP trophies. His "look-at-me-now" performances over this period suggest the latter was equally important as the former. Kobe put up an astounding 35.4 ppg in the 2005-06 season despite his team's meager 8th place finish. Along the way, he scored over 60 points twice, including the absurd 81-point outing. Inexplicably, Bryant decided to refuse shots in game seven against Phoenix in the same season, proving a point at the expense of his team.
During this middling period between championships, Bryant took on a me-against-the-world attitude. It was a strange phenomenon where Kobe was so much better than anyone else that he actually controlled his own statistical output. He was anything but reactive to the defense, opting instead to oscillate between deadeye scorer and facilitator. This was done partially as an experiment, to determine the best formula for winning while playing on team with many imperfections. But more than anything else, it was done to prove that he was just that good. Rather than channeling his superiority in a fashion that would better the play of his team, Kobe channeled his superiority to engage in Kobe vs. Media, Kobe vs. Fan, Kobe vs. Lakers, and Kobe vs. Kobe battles. In the process, Kobe blasted his teammates when they failed and was jealous when they succeeded.
By the summer of 2007, Kobe appeared half-ready to give up. He had failed to win a championship without Shaq, had failed to win an MVP by his own devices, and had failed to win the affection of the basketball world by being jagged. His trade demands and public criticism of Andrew Bynum were an ugly display of his selfishness and frustration, and I thought he was destined for a general admission ticket to the hall of fame when he could have sat courtside.
After the near-implosion of the Lakers in the summer of 2007, Jerry Buss delivered in a big way by stealing Pau Gasol. By doing so, Buss showed Kobe that he was still more concerned with building a present-day winner than developing young talent for the future. This transaction in and of itself breathed new life into Kobe, and for the first time since Shaq's departure he was confident in the team's direction.
With this new confidence, Kobe matured overnight as a player. Until then, all of Kobe's efforts to put the team ahead of himself were visibly fabricated, unauthentic. In early 2008, Kobe passed because teammates were open and shot because he was open. His predetermined game approaches were no longer, and this translated to more wins than losses. Adding a player of Gasol's caliber surely didn't hurt the Lakers' on-court performance, but Kobe's transformation was the most important factor in the equation.
Although his statistics in 2007-08 were similar to the numbers he posted in the previous two seasons (maybe even worse), Kobe's transformation into an authentic leader did not go unnoticed. Kobe received his first NBA MVP award at the conclusion of the regular season, and was showered with praise until the Lakers' six-game failure to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Even in ultimate defeat, the majority of the external blame was placed on the Lakers' lack of toughness inside rather than Kobe's inability to win the big one.
While Kobe's athleticism has slightly deteriorated over the past several months and Lebron has been ushered in as the newly crowned king of the league, we have witnessed the most effective basketball of Kobe's career during this year's playoffs. He has taken over in stretches and looked mortal in others, but for the first time in his career he appears to be playing reactive basketball without reacting to his critics' faulty logic. His focus has been nothing short of mesmerizing, and his movements calculated but improvizational.
In 2009, it has all clicked for the Mamba -- just in time to put a cap on his legacy with his fourth championship as a player and his first as a true leader. When he hoists that trophy as an NBA champion later this week, his lovers will still love and his haters will still hate. That's just the way it's always going to be. I just wish that in love or in hate, we would look at him for what he's become and not what he hasn't.