Friday, June 19, 2009

Basketball Anti-Christs: Kobe and LeBron

Michael Jordan. The greatest basketball player ever. Fine. Nobody really disputes that.

Now, why do Jordan fans seem to hate Kobe Bryant?

Why do Kobe fans seem to hate LeBron James?

. . .

I've followed Kobe Bryant from the beginning of his career to this point. I watched Jordan win six championships as a small boy in Malaysia and was a huge fan, as the Finals were the only games I got to watch (on tape delay, as the games were on when I was in school). I respect and love both of them as competitors and basketball players.

Both have their shortcomings off the court, and on. One is an addicted gambler and one an admitted adulterer. Both are selfish, narcissistic, competitive maniacs on the court, demanding too much of their teammates.

Why is it that the loyal Jordan followers can't seem to find a place in their hearts for Kobe Bryant? Kobe, the guy who never got the benefit of the doubt Jordan got. They guy that never got the media to look the other way. Why?

I'll tell you why. Part of loving a player like Jordan is embracing his image as the best. Everyone wanted to "Be Like Mike", but nobody actually could be. That was the whole point. If people could be Mike, Mike would be irrelevant.

Fast forward to 2000. Jordan is done with the prime of his career. All those fans are still caught up in his mystique. They are still busy hyping him up to a Christ-like warrior that could never lose. Now comes along Kobe Bryant, the apparent heir to the throne. Kobe wins a ring with Shaq. Is he the next Jordan?

No way in hell. Jordan wouldn't be Jordan, and the love for him wouldn't be the same, if somebody else could just come along and be like him. Could it? Some tried. They really did. But Kobe was too introverted, unlike Jordan. He stayed away from the media, unlike Jumpman 23. He played second fiddle to Shaq's dominance and antics and could never be the leader Mike was.

So they gravitated away from him. Whatever Kobe was, they were the opposite. Fans didn't take to him. In turn Kobe was forced further inward, a vicious cycle punctuated by his off-the-court legal battle in 2004, Shaq leaving LA, and his demands for a trade in 2007.

Jordan fans feel as if even allowing someone else into the same conversation as him is blasphemy; it is an attack on Jordan's image, his very being. It's ridiculous to even think it.

Fine. Kobe isn't Michael Jordan. He probably never will be. But he is Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant. Kobe. Bryant. A once-in-a-generation player. At least respect that?

No. Respect isn't forthcoming for the guy who thinks he could be Jordan, even though he's never actually said that. No, they're going to treat him with scorn. He can't win on his own. He's selfish. He can't win without Shaq. And then when he does, he can't win without Phil or Derek. Couldn't have done it without Gasol. When someone gets too close, Jordan loyalists have to do everything in their power to push him away. To defend their messiah.

Fast forward to 2009. LeBron James has taken the MVP title from Kobe. He has elevated his game to a new level. His game is unselfish, his personality likeable, his image branded. He's a nice guy, and he shares the same lethal combination of ridiculous skill and burning competitive drive (see not shaking Dwight's hand) that is impossible to replicate and few are endowed with (aka Jordan and Kobe).

Why do Kobe loyalists HAVE to hate LeBron James? For the same reason most Jordan fans have to push Kobe away. Part of being a Kobe fan has evolved to believing he is the BEST. Maybe not the best ever, but definitely the best in the game right now. He's the Black Mamba, after all. If that isn't true, part of being a Kobe fan is lost. Putting LeBron in the discussion or saying he is better is an attack on the core of Kobe fanhood.

So what happens? Kobe loyalists have to push LeBron as far away as possible. They take joy in the Spurs' succinct sweep of the Cavs in 2007, but Kobe was still the man back then. They revel when Pierce outclutches LeBron in Game Seven in 2008, but Kobe's Lakers lose in 6 to the same team, and LeBron has to be put back down where he belongs. They celebrate the Magic taking down the King in six games in 2009, and call him out for not shaking the Magic's hands when in their heart of hearts they know Kobe Bryant is capable of exactly the same thing.

And to me, this is ridiculous. Three talents. Three supreme talents. Some of the most amazing combinations of size, talent, drive, skill, work ethic, physique, and circumstance. But Jordan fans, by definition, can't like Kobe. Kobe fans must, in turn, reject LeBron's success.

Loving someone that is the best in turn becomes love OF the component "best". Without that component, the love is somehow less.

I'd ask all Jordan fans to sit down for a minute and think about Kobe. He is basically the same demanding, competitive, selfish, ballhog, obsessed player that Jordan was. HE IS THE SAME. There's no two ways about it. Where's the love?

Kobe fans: LeBron doesn't even play the same position as Kobe and has a different game. But it is beautiful to watch. It is beautiful. LeBron can do certain things better than Kobe can, and the opposite is obviously true. There's no reason you can't appreciate both. He's just pushing himself to be the best he can be, a trait that you admire in Kobe. You want Kobe to take down whoever stands in his path, so why can't you respect that in LBJ?

You don't HAVE to hate the other guy. Kobe isn't Jordan. He doesn't even want to be Jordan. LeBron doesn't want to take away from Kobe. They are all friends. They all respect each other. If they do, why can't you?

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