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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kobe Bryant, Carl Lewis, Jon Drummond and the Olympic Spirit

Kobe Bryant would like to play for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. Based on Bryant's recent performance level and injury history, you may think that is selfish or just unrealistic; that will most likely be the mainstream media take on the matter. However, Kevin Ding--a rare NBA commentator who covers the sport insightfully and treats Bryant fairly--explains why Bryant deserves the opportunity to play for Team USA in 2016 and why USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo should honor Bryant's request:

Colangelo has already set the precedent that it's not necessarily about the best players: He promised Paul George a spot for 2016 already after George broke his leg in a U.S. uniform in 2014. He included a 35-year-old Jason Kidd on the 2008 U.S. team for his experience and past contributions.

Team USA is going to win gold in Rio with or without Bryant, with or without George, with or without even LeBron James. The team is absurdly stacked, which is why it becomes thorny to consider what great player would be left off the squad to accommodate Bryant...

But it's Colangelo's call whether to honor something greater here.

And there is indeed a greater good to be had.

Consider the Olympic creed:

The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight;
the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.

No one has answered that call in his athletic career any better than Bryant. He has been triumphant at times, but his fight for personal excellence is what has truly won out.

His fight is why all these fans worldwide see him as their inspiration.

Bryant's proposed candidacy for Team USA's 2016 basketball team reminds me of the controversy surrounding Team USA's 4x100meter relay squad during the 1996 Olympics. Veteran Carl Lewis, participating in the Olympics for the last time, wanted to run anchor for Team USA in the 4x100 meter relay. Lewis previously anchored two Olympic gold-medal winning teams and five teams that set world records. Maybe he was over the hill by 1996 but--based on his past performance and the capabilities he still possessed at that moment--he had earned the right to compete. Prior to the 4x100 meter relay, Lewis won the gold medal in the long jump, his fourth straight Olympic gold in that event; no one else has ever defended an Olympic long jump title even once. He is only the third American to win the same Olympic event four times. Lewis could have capped off his Olympic career by pursuing a then-unprecedented 10th gold medal. Instead, the Team USA coaching staff went in a different direction and Lewis watched Team USA fail to capture gold for the first time ever in the 4x100 meter relay (not including the boycott year of 1980 and three times that Team USA was disqualified for improper baton passes).

Jon Drummond, one of the members of the 1996 Team USA 4x100 team, publicly declared that Lewis did not belong on the team because Lewis finished "butt-naked last" in the Olympic qualifying trials. Lewis had enough athletic ability left to win the gold medal in the long jump and he had previously anchored gold medal-winning relay teams but Drummond thought that he and Team USA's other young guns deserved their time to shine. Carl Lewis is a legend of the sport. Would you even know Drummond's name if I had not brought it up? Well, maybe you would, because he has been in the news recently: he is currently serving an eight year suspension from track and field for his role, as Tyson Gay's coach, in illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Drummond has been banned from the sport until December 2022. He was not caught using performance-enhancing drugs during his athletic career but, then again, neither were Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds, two cheaters who often bragged about never failing a drug test.

Drummond was a loud-mouth nobody who played a role in keeping a legend off of Team USA's 1996 4x100 relay team and, quite possibly, cost Team USA a gold medal. After the race, Drummond admitted that he and his young teammates were "tight." Lewis would not have been tight.

It may be true that Team USA can win the 2016 Olympic gold medal in basketball with just about any conceivable roster of current NBA stars. However, if Bryant wants to play and is able to play then he deserves a spot on the team not only based on his legendary status but also because during the 2012 Olympic games Team USA needed Bryant's clutch production to survive the gold medal game versus Spain. If Bryant plays for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics he will not lead the team in minutes played or scoring or any other statistical category but he will set the right tone with his work ethic and focus--and he may very well make a key shot or key defensive play that is the difference between Olympic gold and the silver medal that Drummond got in 1996.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 PM


Monday, November 09, 2015

The Twilight of Kobe Bryant

Unless you are a sadist or a hater, this kind of article is not fun to write or read. It is as poignant as it is inevitable, because Father Time is undefeated and he will always be undefeated; even if you take Father Time to the final moments of the 15th round, Father Time always wins. The seemingly ageless George Blanda eventually retired, the seemingly peerless Michael Jordan played past the point where he was no longer the best (or the 10th best) player in the NBA and former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand won the title in multiple formats against multiple challengers before inevitably succumbing to the youth and talent of Magnus Carlsen.

Now, Kobe Bryant--who has spent his career overcoming obstacles and injuries, including playing left-handed when he had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and walking off of the court with only a slight limp after tearing his Achillles--is deep into the 15th round versus Father Time. Before we look at Bryant's statistics or the Lakers' record, it is worth remembering that Bryant is a shooting guard playing his 20th season in the NBA. This is uncharted territory. Only three pro basketball players have played 21 seasons and each of them--the retired Robert Parish and Kevin Willis, plus the (barely) active Kevin Garnett--were big men playing very small roles in that 21st campaign: Parish (who had not been a double figure scorer since season 18) averaged 3.7 ppg in 43 games, Willis had retired for a year before coming back for season 21 to score 12 points in five games and Garnett (who has not been a double figure scorer since season 18) has scored 10 points in five games so far this season.

Furthermore, in the past three years, Bryant has ruptured his Achilles--a career-altering if not career-ending injury for many players, including Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins--fractured his kneecap and torn the rotator cuff in his right (shooting) shoulder. During the preseason, he suffered a calf bruise. He is 37 years old but he is an old 37 because he came to the NBA straight out of high school and has made many deep playoff runs, including seven trips to the NBA Finals. It is remarkable that Bryant can still get up and down the court in an NBA game and that he can get off 20 or more field goal attempts in an NBA game. Any negative comments about Bryant's efficiency should be prefaced by wonderment that he is still able to play at all.

No, Kobe Bryant is not the player that he used to be in his prime or even the player that he was three years ago before the Achilles injury when--as a 34 year old in his 17th season--he made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting after ranking third in the league in scoring (27.3 ppg) and second in the league in minutes (38.6 mpg). Bryant is averaging 16.5 ppg (tied for the team lead) while shooting .320 from the field (including .208 from the three point line). He is shooting way too many three pointers (eight attempts per game, easily a career-high) and his usually first-rate floor game has declined (his per minute rebounds, assists and steals are all well below his career norms and he has yet to block a shot in six games). The Lakers are 1-5 and look terrible, with no offensive rhythm and no defensive effort.

Some members of the media are making a big deal about Bryant shooting 6-19 from the field yesterday as the Lakers lost what will probably be Bryant's final appearance in Madison Square Garden. That is not the performance that will define Bryant's MSG career; six years ago, Bryant set the MSG scoring record of 61 points (since broken by Carmelo Anthony) despite playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. Bryant shot 19-31 from the field and 20-20 from the free throw line in a 126-117 Lakers win that day. Ali is defined by his bouts with Frazier, not his losses to Holmes and Berbick.

NBA Radio commentator Brian Scalabrine thinks that Bryant should be more like Paul Pierce and accept a role as a bench player. With all due respect to future Hall of Famer Pierce, he is not in the same league as Bryant in terms of playing skill, toughness or leadership. Pierce had a stacked team with two other Hall of Famers plus an elite (at least at the time) point guard and he won one championship; Bryant won five championships in addition to leading some horrible teams to the playoffs. Bryant never flinched or made excuses in the face of injury; Pierce dramatically left a 2008 NBA Finals game in a wheelchair only to come back on the court a few minutes later. Bryant not only led the Lakers to multiple championships and brought out the best in teammates ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker) but he also was the difference maker as Team USA reclaimed its proper gold medal status in the 2008 Olympics.

No, as Frank Isola correctly responded to Scalabrine, Bryant is in a different category than Pierce and has a different mindset.

Bryant does not have to take a Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett playing role in order to be a good mentor for the Lakers' younger players. Bryant has always led by example with his work ethic, his toughness and his high basketball IQ. Bryant does not belong on the Lakers' bench because the Lakers stink and they do not have anyone who can play small forward or shooting guard better than he does. Let's keep this real: Kobe Bryant is not holding back the L.A. Lakers. This team may not reach .500 even if Bryant recaptures some semblance of his old form and right now it is headed for no more than 25 wins without Bryant playing at an All-NBA level. It is not like the Lakers have a surplus of talented players who are being held back based on Bryant taking X amount of minutes and shot attempts.

Bryant recently mentioned that he is held to a higher standard than his peers and that he embraces that challenge. Bryant is right that if any other player in the NBA has a bad shooting game it is just a bad shooting game but that if Bryant has a bad shooting game then it is portrayed as a big deal.

It cannot be emphasized enough that Bryant is a 37 year old shooting guard who is in his 20th NBA season. He is coming back from multiple injuries sustained in the past three years and he suffered a setback during the preseason when he bruised his calf. Everyone, including Bryant, understands that he is not the player that he used to be--but we are just six games into this season. If Bryant's calf heals and if he does not suffer any other injuries, then his shooting percentage will inch back to a respectable level and he will make a positive impact for the Lakers. In a basketball sense, he is not finished; he still has his footwork, he is still in shape. He can still play, albeit not at his former level.

However, it looks increasingly likely that Bryant will never be fully healthy again. He is getting injured more and more frequently and even the minor injuries are exacting a greater toll than they did before.

This is the 15th round of Bryant's bout versus Father Time. He has battled Father Time as hard and as long as anyone but the end of the 15th round is near. This is not about Bryant embracing a different role. Bryant is who he is and he will finish his career, this season, as a starting player occupying a large role. Instead of nitpicking every shot taken during the final playing days of one of the sport's all-time greats, we should applaud the spirit and guts that Bryant is demonstrating in defiance of the Father Time who not only defeats all athletes but who eventually defeats us all. I wonder if the critics who bash Bryant now will face the 15th round of their lives as well as Bryant is facing the 15th round of his playing life.

It is not my place--or anyone else's place--to tell Bryant what he should do as long as there is at least one NBA team willing to pay his salary. Bryant has earned the right to finish his career on his terms. It will not be pretty or fun to watch at times but I hope that he can summon up the health and wherewithal to author a few more classic games before riding off into the sunset. Almost every great player says that he will not stick around past the point of being the best player in the sport--Julius Erving planned to retire in his early 30s but was an All-Star in his final year at 37, Michael Jordan vowed to not stick around until he was "just" an All-Star like Erving but played until he was "just" an All-Star at 39 and Bryant is now on a similar arc. The love of the game is too strong and the internal pride is too great for such players to retire until they reach that 15th round with Father Time. Erving had the most graceful exit of the three. He announced his retirement early in his 16th season, he enjoyed a marvelous and unprecedented "Farewell Tour," he was still a very good player (16.8 ppg, .471 FG%) and he was a key contributor for a playoff team. He became just the third player in pro basketball history to score 30,000 career points and a late two-game flourish (38 points and 24 points in his final two regular season games) enabled him to keep intact his streak of scoring at least 1000 points in every season of his career.

Erving and Jordan played past the point of being the best player in the world but they both had some very good games in their final seasons; it does not seem to be Bryant's style or plan to announce his retirement in advance or have a formal farewell tour but here is hoping that Bryant uncorks some 40 point outings in the next few months before calling it a career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 PM