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Friday, July 06, 2012

Ralph Wiley Understood Kobe Bryant's Genius

"Would you please be reasonable?"--Vinny Terranova

"I don't have to be reasonable. I'm a genius."--Johnny Medley

(Dialogue from Wiseguy episode "Dead Dog Lives")

**********

Ralph Wiley passed away eight years ago, so NBA fans who are high school age or younger may not even realize that ESPN.com once employed someone who wrote not just with style, verve and humor but also intelligence. Wiley's perspective on Kobe Bryant's February 2003 40.6 ppg scoring spree (the first of four calendar months in Bryant's career during which Bryant averaged at least 40 ppg, second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain's record of 11 such months) was nuanced, brilliant and prescient: you could say that it takes a genius to fully appreciate a genius--and Wiley understood Bryant's genius while lesser mortals took potshots at Bryant. Here is a taste of Wiley's analysis:

Observing Kobe's most recent scoring jag--44.6 per in the last five, nine straight with 35 points or more, best scoring run-out the NBA has seen since the mid-'80s, when Mike Jordan was 24 and 25, the same age Kobe is now--we may conclude Kobe is the greatest scoring force in the league.

Ever.

Sit down. Go with me for a minute. Understand that, just for today, we're leaving Dog and all the other Kobe-haters and Kobe-stoppers and Kobe-controllers home on this op.

We are talking raw ball here, not from the exalted seat of a fan or the controlling seat of a coach, but first from over Kobe's shoulder as he posts us up--from playing off him as he's facing us, reading his body lean; then with him--keeping the spacing correct, salivating as our man slides his way and we come open for the 18-footer that can win a game; and finally, from inside his head--God, it's cluttered in here!

Bryant's prodigious scoring did not inspire universal praise and admiration in 2003 any more than it does today but Wiley stood out from the pack because--instead of joining the critics who blasted Bryant for supposedly shooting too much--he took aim at his fellow scribes for shooting off their mouths. Wiley realized that Bryant felt that his genius should grant him certain liberties and Wiley realized that Bryant had the prerogative to think that way:

I try not to fear, hate or resent him. Or lecture him, or control him, tell him how he failed at some level of hoop.

Besides, even if I'd been in a mood to try it, I didn't think I could back it up. Maybe Jerry West could talk to him like that. Maybe Broke Daddy, Ol' Jingle-Jangle-Jingle, Phil Jackson, one of my favored old Knicks, could do it, maybe. Jordan, sure. Someone should ask Jordan. Do you have any real big problem with the application of Kobe's game? What do you think Jordan would say? "Yeah, I do. He's not running the offense right, or dreaming about it enough."

Right. Last I looked, at 24, Kobe the Destroyer had won three NBA rings in a row, and now is currently looking for a fourth in a row. So me chastizing him, at my advanced age, despite my long history of watching and being on the beats and studying the NBA, from the Rick Barry, Gus Williams, Silk Wilkes, Phil Smith NBA champion Warriors of 1975 and 1976, on through Bird, Magic, Isiah, Dumars, Akeem, MJ, and on until today...well, no. But, still, Kobe does not know that, and it would only mildly amuse him if he did.

So me telling him what he was not doing in the process of his three-ring accomplishments would be like Ron Turcotte pulling out a knotted whip and beating Secretariat with it as Big Red was in the process of winning the Belmont Stakes by 28 lengths. It would be not only grandstanding, it could even be seen as cruel. So I said what I said to him--"Kid, you really put on a show"--and then, later on, I thought about what I'd said, a few days after last Thanksgiving, as the Lakes were trying to get by without Shaquille O'Neal.

Kobe had nodded, not as if he understood me so much as he appreciated me not using the whip on him. And while it is true that a thoroughbred responds to the whip and a mule bucks and sucks, the thoroughbred can also become sick of the whip if misapplied too often, and with too much relish.

Wiley added that he thought Bryant could average 40 ppg for an entire season, something that has only been accomplished by Wilt Chamberlain. At that time--the middle of Bryant's seventh NBA season--Bryant's best single season scoring average was 28.5 ppg; although Bryant did not quite fulfill Wiley's prophecy, he averaged a then-career high 30.0 ppg in 2002-03 and in 2005-06 he averaged 35.4 ppg, a figure not surpassed since Michael Jordan scored 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and the ninth best single season scoring average in ABA/NBA history--trailing five Chamberlain masterpieces and one season each by Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry and Michael Jordan.

Instead of Wiley's eloquence, ESPN viewers and ESPN.com readers now have to settle for foolish ramblings about Bryant's allegedly deficient shot selection. That 2003 article was not the first time that Wiley shared his thoughts about Bryant. Here are two other Wiley gems on that subject:

MJ vs. Kobe @ 22:

Wiley constructed this piece as a dialogue between himself (R-Dub) and his alter ago (Road Dog). R-Dub took Bryant's side, while Road Dog supported young Jordan. R-Dub concluded:

The question is, would Jordan have been able to defer to Shaq, even in the slightest, as Kobe has done? Can you say for sure, Dog, any of you, that it's certain Shaq and Mike would've gotten along? Can you say, that if you were Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, if you had that kind of ability, the ability Kobe Bryant has, Jordanesque ability, that you would not want to be the go-to man, that you would not want it to be your club, featuring your talents?

The Seven Voyages of Kobe:

In this 2002 article, Wiley offered an interesting take on the ups and downs that Bryant might face during the rest of his career, concluding that Bryant is destined to be recognized as an all-time great:

Kobe Bryant, just off me talking with him briefly, seeing how he handled himself then, carries himself in general, watching him go through two of seven voyages already, sensing him sublimating his skills for the benefit of a team concept, hearing him accepting advice, yet living his own way, finally watching him become the most unstoppable baller on the planet, he doesn't strike me as your average man. He is extraordinary upstairs, too, I mean. Mentally unique. Perfectly suited to a new millennium. New Man.

By the year 2013, when he is 35, and has made unflinching, unregenerate, unapologetic and dedicated followers out of people who haven't yet been born, the people who will be driving the culture by then, Kobe will be of the Illuminati.

"That guy?" Better to say "Got-To Guy." Better to hope he's "good guy." Good in the real, not the PR sense.

As Kobe goes, so goes the arc of legend. They might have gotten lucky, the 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds, the ones who haven't been born. Even luckier than we got with Jordan.

Never known the game to go backward. Never.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:09 PM

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At Friday, July 06, 2012 5:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember reading the Seven Voyages piece. Excellent work by Wiley.

-Karl

 

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