Truth be told, I have never been a fan of Kobe Bryant. Even during the glory days of the recent (and sadly, bygone) Los Angeles Lakers dynasty, the selfishness of his individual game would often boil to the surface. He was the guy who stalled the offensive flow with his one-on-one shenanigans, who forced shots whenever he deemed himself to have any kind of rhythm going, who all too often kept the ball from the middle and the most dominant center in the game. Now, I am not so naive to suggest that the Lakers won three championships in spite of Kobe. But mine was a necessary tolerance rather than any reverence. Shaquille O’Neal’s dismal free throw shooting required a teammate to step up in the fourth quarter, and it certainly didn’t hurt that Kobe had a penchant for creating his own offense, hitting the big shots. With three championships, how much could I be complaining anyway?
But therein lay the problem with Kobe. He would say the right things about biding his time, but when it came down to his on-court performance, he would press, try to take over time and time again. Remember when he used the All-Star game as a venue to challenge Michael Jordan? This was a guy who wasn’t content with three rings and the possibility for more, who would rather crash and burn with his own team than accept this one. The only thing was that he was doing this to our team, our franchise. Of course, the breakup itself is well-documented. Elimination by the Spurs. An off-season of sniping, an uneven year with Payton and Malone. Detroit in five, thanks in no small part to the largely-ignored skewed officiating. Phil retires, and Shaq is shipped off to Miami. Direct influence or not, coincidence or not, there was an underlying theme in how all of this was unfolding. Everything that Kobe Bryant wanted was taking place.
The picture was clear. Confronted with a choice between the two superstars, the Laker organization stuck with Kobe. It was a product of Jerry Buss’s infatuation with the up-tempo Showtime era he craved a return to, as well as his (reasonable) calculation that the shelf life of Shaquille was not long enough to warrant the extension he demanded. Naturally, I was thrilled. We had traded away the guy who averaged 35 and 15 in winning three Finals MVPs, the guy who put on a Santa hat and gave away a truck full of toys every Christmas, the guy everybody in the community loved and everyone in the league feared. Instead, we chose the alleged rapist, the guy who name-dropped his teammate when confronted by the Colorado police. Fair or not, the act underscored the questionable nature of the guy’s character. It didn’t help that the way he played on the court reflected some dark spots in his personality.
This is a guy who had no qualms about sabotaging the team with the division on the line two years ago, pointedly taking two shots in a half in response to general outcry that he had been hogging. This is a guy who repeatedly shows up the referees by slapping his wrists loudly after every miss. On defense, he gambles for the big steal, leaving his teammates out to dry. He passes to his teammates as a matter of last resort, usually only when he’s caught in the air. When they make big shots, he is overly demonstrative, as if to show all the world that he is indeed a great teammate. In a defining performance – the 62 point game against the Mavericks last week, he had zero assists, took 30 shots and 25 free throws. Is this the measure of his greatness? Perhaps more telling is the way he emphatically pounded his chest for the cameras before sitting the final quarter. It’s a regular season game in December, and you’re up 30 points. Does this truly mean more to Kobe Bryant than a playoff win in which he scores 21, and Shaq scores 30? Or does it merely seem that way?
Every time with the game on the line, he dribbles down the clock, makes a quick move, stops, head fakes, jumps into the defender, then throws up a line drive three-pointer from about 30 feet. Every time. Why? Because of his supreme arrogance, his adamant belief that he does not need to drive for a higher-percentage shot. It’s a chip on his shoulder, combined with an egoism that all too often hurts the team. This selfishness is the reason why the Lakers look the way they do now. He does what he wants and gets little criticism because of his talent level relative to that of his teammates. Yesterday’s Christmas grudge match is a true microcosm. He pours in 37, partakes in some spectacular plays… and ends up jacking up a three-pointer that falls short as the Lakers lose by three. Luke Walton is the only other guy to touch the ball in those final 12 seconds, and only to set a screen for what amounts to a 30-foot desperation heave. It’s exactly what Kobe Bryant wanted, and he’s gotten it. It just cost everything we had.