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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kobe Bryant Quotes Provide Insight Into His Basketball Philosophy

When Kobe Bryant turned 37 a couple months ago, ESPN posted a list of 37 quotes from Bryant over the years. A few of those quotes are worth examining in greater depth.

Bryant is often accused of shooting too much but he is unfazed by that criticism: 

I've shot too much from the time I was 8 years old. But 'too much' is a matter of perspective. Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions. Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much. I find it very interesting. Going back to Mozart, he responded to critics by saying there were neither too many notes or too few. There were as many as necessary.

Here is another quote from Bryant about supposedly shooting too much:

I would go 0-for-30 [from the floor] before I would go 0-for-9. 0-for-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game...The only reason is because you've just now lost confidence in yourself.

ESPN is well acquainted with the critique that Bryant shoots too much, since ESPN's Mike Wilbon frequently attacks Bryant on this basis--and Wilbon's facts are usually as off-base as his feeble attempts at basketball analysis. Regarding great players, I agree with Bryant's philosophy that such players should never go 0-9 from the field; a great player must have the confidence that if he misses nine shots in a row he is about to make nine shots in a row. Michael Jordan is lauded for having that high degree of self-confidence and it is odd that Bryant is bashed for having a similar belief in his abilities.

***

Speaking of ESPN, Bryant was unfazed before last season when the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" ranked him as the 40th best player in the NBA:

I've known for a long time they're a bunch of idiots...I tend to use things as motivation that tend to be in the realm of reality.

ESPN's basketball rankings are pretty predictable: Bryant will always be ranked lower than he should be, while players who never have won anything of substance and probably never will win anything of substance will be praised for their unselfishness and how much their teammates supposedly love them. The reality is that, prior to the 2014-15 season, Bryant should not have been listed as the 40th best player in the NBA; during his last full season (2012-13), he was a legit top five player/MVP candidate, so upon coming back from injury he should have either been still considered a top five player until proven otherwise or else he should have not been ranked at all due to his prolonged absence from the court. It made no sense to arbitrarily rank him 40th--except for the fact that by doing so ESPN generated a lot of clicks for their website and a lot of bantering opportunities for their talking/screaming heads, like Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith.

***

Bryant learned from an early age to not be intimidated:

The last time I was intimidated was when I was 6 years old in karate class. I was an orange belt and the instructor ordered me to fight a black belt who was a couple years older and a lot bigger. I was scared s---less. I mean, I was terrified and he kicked my [butt]. But then I realized he didn't kick my [butt] as bad as I thought he was going to and that there was nothing really to be afraid of. That was around the time I realized that intimidation didn't really exist if you're in the right frame of mind...

That is a good life lesson in general. One of the best things my Dad ever taught me was that no matter how scary a bully might seem the bully is actually more scared than the kids he bullies and that if you stand up to him he will respect you and leave you alone. Once you learn to not be intimidated mentally, emotionally or physically (the latter was the toughest one for me but my Dad helped me figure it out) you open up a whole vista of possibilities--including the reality that many people are easily intimidated, a piece of knowledge that is very useful during any kind of competition and something that Bryant applies to good effect.

***

Not everyone learns the lesson about being strong in the face of intimidation. If you are scared and/or soft, Bryant does not want to play with you:

There's certain players that I've made cry. If I can make you cry by being sarcastic, then I really don't want to play with you in the playoffs.

Jordan is commended for being this way, while Bryant is criticized for being this way. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith quotes Horace Grant saying that if you were scared during practice Jordan would put a saddle on you and ride you right out of town. Jordan attacked his teammates during practice--both verbally and, at times, physically (ask Steve Kerr)--to see how they would respond under duress because he did not want to battle the "Bad Boys" Pistons at playoff time with a bunch of soft dudes who were scared or soft. That is not "nice" and it is not the only way to be a leader (Julius Erving and Tim Duncan are two championship-winning superstars who led/lead in a completely different way) but if the sports media world is going to canonize Jordan for such traits then Bryant deserves the same treatment; if we are in a kinder, gentler era in which such conduct is no longer cool then Jordan's reputation should be reevaluated as well.

***

Some players thought that they could get Bryant off of his game by talking smack to him. That did not work out very well for those players:

Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out.

This quote refers to J.R. Smith, who then played for the Denver Nuggets, yapping at Bryant during a 2008 playoff game. Here is my recap of what happened: Unstoppable: Kobe Drops 49 as Lakers Smash Nuggets, 122-107. Bryant's raw numbers that game were 49 points, 10 assists, 18-27 field goal shooting. The "leopard" reappeared in the 2009 playoffs after Ron Artest, who then played for the Houston Rockets, verbally and physically confronted Bryant; that time, Bryant dropped 31 points on 14-23 field goal shooting in a 102-96 Lakers win.

Although my default preference is for athletes--like Julius Erving and Bjorn Borg--who let their performances speak for themselves, I have also enjoyed the exploits of athletes like Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson who talked big but fully backed up what they said. However, I believe it was Chris Mullin who said that if you talk a lot but cannot play then you are just a chump. I love it when a player like Bryant shuts up a chump like J.R. Smith. Smith is a good player--anyone who makes it to the NBA is a good player--but he has no business talking smack to a great player like Bryant. 

***

After Bryant poured in 44 points on 34 field goal attempts in just 31 minutes as his overmatched L.A. Lakers lost 136-115 to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors he was unapologetic about shooting so much:

I'd rather not have to do that, but you can't sit back and watch crime happen in front of you.

I love this quote because it captures so many truths about Bryant, about basketball and about the bizarre double standard applied against Bryant.

One, most of the media coverage of that game stated directly or at least implied that Bryant played inefficiently and/or selfishly, so it is worth noting that 44 points on 34 shots is very efficient. For years, Doug Collins has mentioned that the standard for good defense against a great player is to hold him to a point per shot; in this case, Bryant well exceeded that mark despite playing alongside no credible offensive threats and despite facing a dominant team that won 67 regular season games en route to capturing the championship.

Two, some people may scoff at the idea that Bryant does not want to shoot 34 times but he was the primary playmaker on five championship teams so he is a willing and capable passer when he has teammates who can do something with the ball.

Three, instead of just quitting and accepting inevitable defeat, Bryant fought the basketball "crime" being committed in front of him by doing everything he could to compete against a clearly superior team. As Phil Jackson used to say (borrowing a line from his teammate "Super" John Williamson), "Go down as you live." I would much rather be in a foxhole with someone who fights to the end as opposed to someone who whines or makes excuses or just quits.

***

During his third season with the Miami Heat, LeBron James declared that the Lakers would never receive the scrutiny that the Heat did. Bryant was unimpressed by James' complaint:

What does it matter? What does he want, a cookie for that?

This quote reveals so much about the difference between Bryant and James. Bryant focuses on results, on what he and his teammates need to do to win games and championships. Bryant does not care about hype and he does not care what people think of him as long as he is doing his job. James craves the spotlight but only if it is shining on him positively. In Miami, James belatedly learned that he needed to accept and embrace the challenge of being the best player on the court and this self-awareness resulted in winning two championships--but Bryant figured this out from the start.

***

For a time during the early 2000s, a legitimate debate could be held about Kobe Bryant versus Tracy McGrady, but Bryant did not think that the debate was particularly legitimate:

I played T-Mac. I cooked him. Roasted him. Wasn't even close. Ask him, he'll tell you. When I was about 20, we were in Germany doing some promotional stuff for that other sneaker company and we played basketball every day. We were in the gym all the time. We played three games of 1-on-1 to 11. I won all three games. One game I won 11-2. After the third game he said he had back spasms and couldn't play anymore.

Of course, a few one on one games played during the players' formative years do not prove who was the better player in a five on five context but it is interesting that Bryant took the challenge so seriously and remembered the outcome so vividly. This is reminiscent of how Jordan viewed the 1992 NBA Finals not just as Chicago versus Portland but also a one on one showdown to determine who was the best shooting guard in the NBA.

***

This quote sums up Bryant's focus, determination and work ethic:

I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena.

Nothing more needs to be said.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 PM

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