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Monday, August 05, 2013

Ralph Wiley Describes the Young Kobe Bryant's Evolution

Ralph Wiley wrote brilliantly about many subjects but he had special insight regarding the nature of Kobe Bryant's genius--perhaps it takes a genius to fully appreciate the talent, work ethic and productivity of another genius. In an October 2001 GQ article titled "From Here to Infinity," Wiley described a young Bryant who had already accomplished a lot but who had not yet reached the height of his considerable powers.

Wiley began by mentioning the various relationships in Bryant's life--including those with his parents, his new wife Vanessa, his teammate Shaquille O'Neal and his Coach Phil Jackson--before stating a hard truth that does not only apply to Bryant:

But he is still basically alone. A man can't afford not to see things as they are. Alone. That's how we come here; that's how we leave. In the meantime, we have to work with things as they are and with people as they come. A man, even a flying man, can't afford not to face the gravity of these facts.

The O'Neal-Bryant Lakers won their second consecutive championship in 2001 but Bryant faced some adversity during the season, including a peculiar public accusation by Jackson, who said that Bryant had "sabotaged" games in high school so that he could lead fourth quarter comebacks. Bryant denied the charge and he also rejected the idea that he needed some kind of extra motivation but he also showed a surprising maturity/sense of humor about the situation; after Jackson made the comment, the Lakers had a practice in which Bryant's team was winning easily and Jackson took Bryant out to rest, whereupon Bryant joked, "Yo, Phil, put me back in there--so I can sabotage us and hit the winning shot," a line that elicited laughter from everyone, including Jackson.

Wiley called Bryant "a loner, in that he knew no one like him, with his set of skills and interests...He had to learn to trust others in the NBA. Only another ball genius could help him see what he had to do, convince him he'd have to do it, if he wanted to win, really win."

That genius was Jerry West. Wiley noted West's accomplishments as a player, as well as the frustration West felt because he only won one NBA title. Wiley correctly concluded, "For a Patrick Ewing, a Charles Barkley, a Pistol Pete Maravich, one NBA title would be a godsend. For a West or a Bryant, one NBA title is only one. There are levels to the game. Kobe Bryant could dig on Jerry West."

West and Bryant are both perfectionists, players focused intently on their own self-improvement, but West convinced Bryant that to win championships Bryant had to not only elevate his own individual game but also help his teammates be the best that they could be. Bryant told Wiley, "I've always had a different mind-set. I would try to destroy whomever I was playing against in practice. Go for the jugular...But I realize for the team's sake it's about how many people you elevate."

One of the most fascinating things about reading Wiley's 2001 article is that so many critics act like Bryant did not learn these lessons until very late in his career, if at all--but of course if that were true then Bryant would not have been able to play an integral role on the 2000-02 championship teams.Wiley recognized that Bryant had not completed his growth process but that Bryant had made significant progress in a very short period of time despite the enormous pressure placed on him after jumping straight from high school to the NBA.

Kobe Bryant version 2001 was already great, but Wiley foresaw how much greater Bryant could--and would--become:

If you are Kobe Bryant, you are a complex man, not the kind who can be measured at a glance, so people misunderstand you, people you know and care about. There isn't anything you can say to make those close to you understand, let alone the rest. Your game was forged in solitude. You are young, so you are going to make mistakes. This is part of the making of a man.

Bryant was not only developing his mental and psychological game; Bryant's personal trainer Joe Carbone told Wiley that the 23 year old Bryant was "not physically mature yet. When he finally matures, around age 26, 27, it'll be like nothing you've ever seen before. We won't know what it'll be like until we see it. I know this: Whoever's relaxing right now, whoever's on vacation--they've already lost their chance." Bryant turned 27 just before the 2005-06 season; O'Neal had already talked his way out of L.A.--loudly demanding to be given a max deal even though he had previously delayed surgery by offering the lame excuse, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time"--and Bryant won his first scoring title by averaging 35.4 ppg, including 43.4 ppg in January, the highest scoring calendar month by an NBA player in more than 40 years. Bryant carried a severely talent-deprived roster--Lamar Odom was the second best player, followed next in the rotation (in order of total minutes played) by Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook--to the playoffs.

Wiley did not live to see the Bryant who averaged 35.4 ppg, let alone the Bryant who carried the Lakers to back to back championships sans O'Neal--and yet Wiley did see that Bryant, at least in his mind's eye: in 2002 Wiley wrote about The Seven Voyages of Kobe and he envisioned Bryant carving out a very special place in history:

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 AM



At Wednesday, August 07, 2013 10:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s a shame that Kobe is in a bit of a “no-win” situation with the majority of the NBA media/fan base. They will trivialize all of the great things he has accomplished in his career and then magnify a highly anomalous 6-28 shooting performance. Imagine if Kobe had Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen as teammates. I can assure you that any ring he would have won with that supporting cast wouldn’t have “count“ as he had “too much help“, regardless of what numbers he put up. That is not to discredit LeBron in any way but to simply demonstrate the impossible double standard that is applied to Bryant. Kobe was accused of having “too much help” with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom!

At Wednesday, August 07, 2013 11:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are right that a double-standard is applied against Bryant; his great performances are often minimized, his rare poor performances are heavily critiqued and the abilities/contributions of his teammates are often grossly exaggerated.

At Thursday, August 08, 2013 12:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But there is a level of selfishness to Kobe's game that does affect his team. Kobe's greatness has brought the lakers back from many deficits (and won them many titles), but it's that same approach (no one can do it but me) that ends up hurting the team in many cases as well.

Here are two examples:

Last year when Bickerstaff was coaching, his final game was against the Spurs. If you watched the last play, kobe was following the ball not his man (Green - who made the winning shot). As a result, he ran into dwight howard underneath the basket and lost just enough space that Green had enough space to make the shot.

I'm pretty sure it was game 2 of the 2012 okc/lakers playoffs where kobe lost the ball in consecutive sequences that caused the lakers to lose the lead they had in the final minutes of the game. In one sequence, westbrook stole the ball from him. In the second instance, he got trapped by durant and westbrook. You would think that in a close game, where you have the lead, and you just coughed up the ball, you'd be a little more careful the second time around. I'm not saying he lost the game, but those were critical errors.

It's a hard balance to maintain for kobe - when to take over and when to wait for his teammates to show up. Because a lot of times, they don't.

And it's very hard to stand up to kobe as a teammate. Very few did it.

At Thursday, August 08, 2013 7:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I hope you realize that the same kind of selective recollection can be applied to any great player's career. You can find examples of selfishness and/or bad plays by every single great player in the history of the NBA.

Larry Bird once told his teammates to either play harder or he would take every shot and not pass them the ball. Is that an example of leadership, competitiveness or selfishness? Would you feel differently if that story were about Bryant instead of Bird? If so, why?

Also, how many players "stood up" to Michael Jordan? Do you criticize Jordan for that, too? If not, then why do you criticize Bryant for the same trait that earned Jordan praise?


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