Sunday, November 29, 2015

What Kobe Taught Us

Kobe Bryant has announced that the 2015-16 season will be his final one as a player in the NBA. He had one hell of a career and will be missed by many who enjoyed watching him play the game of basketball at its highest level. Lakers fans are left to wonder who their next franchise legend will be. Those of us with long enough memories will remember that Kobe's legacy includes not only on court heroics, but also some off the court debauchery that threatened to stop his candidacy for Greatest Of All Time in its tracks. Ultimately he didn't let the disgrace get in his way of having a Hall of Fame caliber career. Avoiding a criminal case and meeting the right price in a settlement case probably has a lot to do with that. I have no doubt that by some people he remains unforgiven. That's his cross to bear.  But whoever's job it is to judge him, it for sure isn't mine.

Below is what I had to say (some of it dated, some of it timeless) about Kobe's extracurricular activities and what there was to learn from it back in 2003.

In the Summer of 2003, high profile athletes have been adept at getting themselves into trouble away from the workplace. About every other week or so, a story breaks about some player who has earned the spotlight’s glare for something other than the sports heroics expected of him. The usual suspects have had their fair share of mention for customary behavior, such as Mike Tyson getting into yet another out-of-ring altercation. When we see Mike’s mug shot on the evening news, we scarcely take notice anymore. Nor are we especially surprised to learn of various NBA/NFL/MLB players getting arrested over a variety of infractions that we know will cost them little more than pocket change and community service. But on top of the same old same old, a few athletes have managed to earn the type of media attention not seen since O.J. was trying to make that glove fit before a televised audience. Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett snagged a few headlines that otherwise may have gone to NFL preseason action and NBA offseason trades. By far the most grave sports story of this Summer was the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy, and the subsequent arrest of his teammate Carlton Dotson. But the story to capture the most national attention, due in no small part to the fame of its leading man, has been the arrest of Kobe Bryant for his alleged rape of a hotel employee in Eagle County, Colorado.

There has been much talk about the conjectured guilt or innocence of Mr. Bryant. It has been acknowledged by all parties involved that sex did take place between Kobe and a nineteen year old woman who caught his attention. Whether or not that sex was consensual, I leave up to a jury to decide. I do not personally know either the accused or the accuser. What I do know of Kobe is merely his reputation, and up until this Summer, it was as solid as they come. Before the accusations and denials began to fly, Kobe was the heir apparent to the legacy left behind by Michael Jordan. He has the requisite skills, the championship rings, the polished demeanor, clean-cut good looks, and a lovely young bride on his arm. Numerous endorsement deals were in his hands and plenty more were likely to come. Kobe is the anti-Allen Iverson, opting not to “keep it real” (a.k.a. having a huge posse and a multitude of tattoos), but instead, to keep it marketable. Other than having to share some of the spotlight with Shaquille O’Neal (granted, Shaq does take up a pretty big portion of it), and now also an influx of additional Hall of Famers by the names of Gary Payton and Karl Malone, there really was no discernible flaw in Kobe’s grand design. He needed only to fill up more highlight reels, collect a few more trophies for his mantle, and flash his pearly whites for Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, Nutella and whoever else could afford to associate their name with him. The last thing anybody expected was that instead of seeing countless wannabes sporting Kobe’s Lakers jersey this Summer, there would instead be sightings of people in “Free Kobe” T-shirts. But that is the very twist his road has taken, while a public intrigued by personal triumph, but far more fascinated by the downfall of a hero, goes along for the ride.

Rather than guessing what happened on that fateful night when Kobe broke his wedding vows to Vanessa, and despite lacking the zen-like wisdom of a Phil Jackson, I decided to postulate on what can be learned from this headline making event. I came up with twelve lessons.

1) Image is neither everything nor nothing. Rather, it is an intangible element that can be carefully crafted over time to make someone very popular and wealthy, and that can be demolished overnight.

2) Boys will be boys, most especially when they are pampered and praised like royalty. Regardless of how squeaky-clean Kobe’s image was, nobody was surprised to learn that he had engaged in extramarital activity. Never mind that he is a newlywed and a new father, or that his wife is drop dead gorgeous, or that his reputation was on par with Ward Cleaver. The flesh is often as strong or as weak as the options presented to it, and NBA stars are not short on options.

3) Even when a husband’s infidelity becomes back and front page news (not to mention a popular water cooler and internet chat topic), a good woman will forgive her man, provided that he can afford four million dollar apology jewelry.

4) Michael Jordan is still without peer when it comes to marketing himself as the most beloved and admired athlete of all time. Like Mike, Kobe should have known not to put his private business out in the public domain until the latter part of his career when he had already been immortalized by a sculptor and had his number retired by at least one team. Let’s see how well Lebron James does now that all remaining sponsors’ eyes will turn to him. There is simply no shortage of good breaks for that kid.

5) In remarking that Kobe Bryant's legal problems are good for NBA business, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban illustrated that you can always count on him to say something that will piss off Commissioner Stern.

6) I’m having some fun with this article, but if in fact Kobe is guilty of rape, that is certainly no laughing matter and he deserves to have the book thrown at him. No always means no, even when spoken to a superstar with the world at his feet. If Kobe didn’t learn from Michael Jordan, he should have learned the lesson taught to Mike Tyson by Desiree Washington. Otherwise, Mike and Kobe could end up as bunkmates in a prison cell any day now.

7) There actually are celebrity relationships to talk about other than Ben and J-Lo.

8) Mismatches are boring. When combatants do battle, what onlookers want most is a fair fight. By obtaining the likes of Payton and Malone for next season without even having to break their bank, the Lakers made themselves (at least on paper) a man amongst boys in the NBA. The distraction of Kobe Bryant’s legal problems may serve to make LA a little vulnerable after all. Parity is much more entertaining than slaughter.

9) There's always somebody willing to toss in the race card as soon as an opportunity arises to deal it.

10) "He-said, she-said" is an awful game that's no fun for anybody. No wonder Playstation never patented a computerized version of it.

11) Apparently Magic Johnson did not corner the market on Lakers superstars who engage in high risk sex.

12) Winning a Teen Choice award for most popular athlete does not grant one immunity from criminal prosecution.

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