(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
Shocking fact number one of the new NBA season: I’m actually pulling for Kobe Bryant this year. Regular readers know that I’ve taken every opportunity to slam ‘KoMe’ whenever he’s stepped out of line and have relished the opportunity to destroy all the undeserved Jordan comparisons.
But I guess I’m getting soft in my old age. I would like nothing better this year (except for the Grizzlies to win the NBA championship and for Penny Hardaway to become an All-Star again, natch) than to see Kobe redeem himself and reclaim the title of ‘NBA’s Brightest Superstar’.
He seems like a new man this year – except for giving himself the nickname “Black Mamba”, because he admires how deadly and quick that snake is (either that or he just liked Kill Bill way too much).
He and wife Vanessa are expecting their second child, and all you dads out there know firsthand how fatherhood tends to mellow you out.
It had to have been a very humbling experience for him to have Phil Jackson return as head coach. Especially after all the things Jackson wrote about him in his book, and the way Phil’s departure – warranted or not – was thrown at Bryant’s feet.
It’s also a strong indicator that Kobe realizes he can’t return to the top without help and that he doesn’t know all there is to know about simply winning basketball games yet. If enduring the season that he did last year didn’t change him, something’s way wrong.
I believe it did change him. Case in point: After last year’s early season loss to the Grizzlies – in which Kobe was held to 14 points – he said he “could’ve gotten 50 against this team, but it wouldn’t have helped us win”. Last Saturday night the Grizz beat the Lakers again – and held Kobe to 18. But this time Bryant gave Memphis credit and said he “knew they would be in for a battle”.
There’s no question that this current Lakers squad was built around Bryant. Kobe now has the opportunity to mold his teammates into what he needs to be competitive.
Jordan made Scottie Pippen into the player that was named to the “50 Greatest Players of All-Time” (which was a joke by the way). He coaxed all his teammates into becoming more than they were capable of on their own.
Bryant has the power to do the same. I can totally see Brown becoming a more athletic Horace Grant and Odom putting up a triple-dip every night. It’s just up to Kobe to bring that ability out of those players by sharing the ball, saying the right things, and beating the crap out of them in practice.
I’d also like to see a return to form from Kobe because he is an exciting, talented player. With the exception of LeBron James, he is the most breathtaking player in the game. And I’m not even all the way sold on LeBron yet. He’s good, but he hasn’t taken enough lumps yet.
James is part of the new breed of young players that scowl every time someone dares try and defend them. After a bucket and foul, the trip to the free throw line always includes shaking their head “no” and showing complete disdain for their opponent.
The only unguardable player in the game, in my opinion, is Kobe. James gets a lot of his points in transition; Kobe works for everything he gets because he has a target on him.
Plus, the NBA is better when the Lakers are good. Just like MLB thrives when the Yankees are winning and the NFL loves it when the Cowboys are competitive.
The Lakers are a team that most people love to hate. It doesn’t seem right when they miss the playoffs.
The Pacific Division is wide open for the moment. With Amare Stoudemire’s injury, the time is now for the Lakers to build a comfortable lead and try to sustain it after the Suns’ star rises again.
The time is also ripe for Kobe to create his true legacy. Sure, he won three championships, but it was with probably the most dominating center in the game since Chamberlin, Jabbar or Russell.
And if his career ended now, he would finish it as a career 22-point per game scorer. If he really has changed, he can put the rest of the league on notice that to win a title, you have to travel through Los Angeles.
I hope he can do it. But he is a ball hogging, self-centered, adulterous, backstabbing, paranoid, former recluse who was once charged with (alleged) sexual assault.
Do you think he can?