Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus RealityThere have been ebbs and flows in terms of how Kobe Bryant is perceived and how he has been portrayed in the media but Bryant has never wavered regarding two things: (1) he has been misunderstood as a person; (2) he has not changed fundamentally as a player (even though "experts" insist that he has become a better teammate).
In some of his recent advertisements, Bryant has tried to show the public his real personality: "What we've done from a marketing standpoint is let people see who I am as a person for real and then make their judgments from that point going forward. From that standpoint, I think we've done a good job of making sure people see that and if they choose to come around or not, that's kind of up to them." As for his on court performance, Bryant says simply, "I've been playing the same way since I came into this league. I haven't changed at all. I think the thing that's changed is my role on this team. The things that I would have done when Shaquille was here in terms of getting in people's faces and demanding stuff from them, calling guys out, whatever, now that's viewed as leadership. Back then, it was viewed as a young kid stepping out of line."
When Bryant's public reputation reached its nadir four years ago, I asserted that the perception of Bryant did not match up with the reality. Not long after that article was published, I asked Bryant about how the media distorts the truth regarding him and he replied, "The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right."
Many commentators think that being a member of the media means never having to admit that you were wrong: to them, Bill Belichick's Super Bowl wins don't prove that they misjudged him in Cleveland; Belichick "changed." Similarly, it is popular to say that Bryant now "gets it" but it is more accurate to say that observers are finally "getting it": Bryant has been the best all-around player in the league for several years now and he has always been an excellent passer; after all, he was the leading playmaker on three Lakers' championship teams, filling the Scottie Pippen role in the Triangle Offense for the first three quarters before switching to the Michael Jordan scoring role in the fourth quarter because Shaquille O'Neal's poor free throw shooting meant that O'Neal could not be trusted with the ball in his hands down the stretch.
The idea that Bryant suddenly learned last season how to trust his teammates is ridiculous; contrasting his famous scoring outbursts--such as his 81 point game--with his current scoring average is asinine: who, exactly, should Bryant have "trusted" three years ago versus Toronto when the Lakers were trailing by nearly 20 points and needed a superhuman performance in order to get back in the game? If Bryant had eschewed shooting the ball 25-30 times a game in order to pass more often to Kwame Brown and Smush Parker that would have been stupid, selfish basketball because it would not have increased his team's likelihood of winning--but when Bryant is paired with someone who can catch the ball and make plays, the result is beautiful. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol screen/roll play turned into a deadly weapon almost immediately after Gasol joined the Lakers last season; Bryant is a great screen/roll player who fully understands how to make correct reads under pressure and make the open jumper, attack quickly when there is a driving lane or make the right pass, whether it involves feeding a cutting Gasol, hitting Lamar Odom flashing to the high post or skipping the ball to an open three point shooter on the backside of the play.
Furthermore, any suggestion that Bryant's spectacular scoring exploits were not primarily focused on helping the Lakers win is belied by the fact that the Lakers are 65-31 during Bryant's career when he scores 40 or more points, including a 17-7 mark when he scores at least 50 points.
Bryant's 81 point game was amazing and outscoring a strong Dallas team 62-61 in the first three quarters may have been even more remarkable but do you remember when Bryant scored 30 points in one quarter versus the Utah Jazz, shooting 9-9 from the field and 10-10 from the free throw line? I called that performance "the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes." In the wake of that masterpiece, Ric Bucher wrote, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for
Bryant's critics have always been quick to compare his temperament and playing style unfavorably with his former teammate O'Neal. Writers and broadcasters love O'Neal because he makes their job easy, providing a steady stream of quotes to fill their notebooks and recorders. Bryant is more thoughtful and reserved, which means that he responds better to thoughtful questions than superficial questions and does not often produce sound bite-quality answers. When Jerry Buss decided in 2004 that he did not want to extend O'Neal's contract for maximum dollars and maximum years, most members of the media blamed O'Neal's departure from the Lakers on Bryant and continued to tell the story that way even though Buss, O'Neal, Phil Jackson, Bryant and anyone else involved with that situation has made it very clear that Buss made his decision based on financial considerations. Buss' thinking was also influenced by the fact that O'Neal's subpar work ethic made it likely that O'Neal would miss a lot of games, which is exactly what has happened.
Following the mantra of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the mainstream media portrayed O'Neal as a great teammate while disparaging Bryant as a selfish teammate who wanted to get rid of O'Neal in order to prove that he could win a championship on his own. Now that a few years have passed, it is interesting to reexamine the question of who is a better teammate. The only teammate who Bryant has "feuded" with is O'Neal; Bryant has been with the same franchise for his entire career and he has played an integral role in helping his younger teammates improve their games--you can read about one of many examples of this in my November 27, 2007 Lakers-Pacers recap, which describes how Bryant has been a mentor for Andrew Bynum (this is a marked contrast with how O'Neal treated Bryant when O'Neal was a veteran and Bryant was a young player fresh out of high school). Bryant set the tone for Team USA with his work ethic and defensive intensity; the coaching staff and other players acknowledged that he was one of the main team leaders right from the start and that was never more obvious than when Bryant took over down the stretch in the gold medal game victory over Spain.
In contrast, O'Neal has played for four NBA teams and every time he has left a team he has departed on bad terms, directing venomous comments toward his former coaches and several of his former teammates. It is funny that in O'Neal's recent verbal barrage against his former coach Stan Van Gundy one of O'Neal's complaints is that he hates a "frontrunner," because that is the perfect way to describe how one minute O'Neal will praise Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant or someone else and then the next minute he will stab that very same person in the back with a vicious remark. As Van Gundy said in response to O'Neal's verbal blasts, being mocked by O'Neal places him in good company.
Every single team that O'Neal has played on has had serious problems with locker room chemistry. The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers have been largely free of chemistry problems since trading O'Neal. Even when Bryant was going into gun fights with "butter knives" his Lakers were a playoff team in the competitive West and as soon as the Lakers got some "guns" Bryant led them to the 2008 Finals and he currently has them lapping the field in the West in the 2009 regular season. Look at how quickly O'Neal's championship team fell apart in Miami--as I wrote last year, O'Neal presided over "perhaps the quickest and most complete collapse by a champion in NBA history: within two years O'Neal's Heat were the worst team in the NBA and he had found an escape hatch to Phoenix"; look at how poor the chemistry is in Phoenix now and how that talented team with two former MVPs and multiple current or former All-Stars is sinking out of the playoff race. O'Neal's dysfunctional track record with multiple teams sure shines a different light on the O'Neal-Bryant "feud"; the media portrayed O'Neal as selfless and Bryant as selfish but the reality behind the scenes was much different, as I noted in many posts here (including this one about Bryant playing through his pinkie injury last season): O'Neal can try to claim that the tensions between he and Bryant were nothing but "marketing" but the reality is that Bryant wanted O'Neal to have a more professional attitude and he called O'Neal out for getting his 2002 toe surgery on "company time" and thus coming into the 2002-03 season out of shape. Instead of taking Bryant's words to heart, O'Neal's response was that if the big dog was not fed (the ball) then he would not guard the house (play defense in the paint).
Bryant is a killer during games AND on the practice court. In a very telling remark during the 2009 All-Star Weekend, Bryant recalled, "When that light came on he (Shaq) was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game." The flip side of that, of course, is that during practice, O'Neal did not have nearly the same intensity; the difference between Bryant and O'Neal in that regard--and not the nonsense that much of the media wasted so much time discussing--is the real basis of their "feud." Bryant is a hard worker year round and in that sense he and O'Neal are fundamentally incompatible; their on court chemistry was good because during games they shared that goal of "break(ing) somebody's face off."
posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 PM