Thursday, June 19, 2008
In securing their 17th NBA championship, the Boston Celtics continued New England’s ho-hum (if you don’t live in New England) reign of post-2000 sports dominance. If the Patriots could have salted away the New York Giants in this year’s Super Bowl, we’d be looking at a Boston whitewash—and the truth is, we still are. The Red Sox shattered the Bambino’s curse in 2004 and won the World Series again this past year, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls this decade (and came up a touchdown short in February), and now, the Celtics capped the greatest regular-season turnaround in league history with an unabashed disembowelment of the Lakers in the clinching Finals game.
Unlike virtually every other red-blooded New Yorker, I do not detest our chowder-happy neighbors to the northeast. I am a Mets fan, and entered long ago into the Red Sox-Mets anti-Yankee fraternity. I am also a Jets fan, so the Giants-Patriots subplots were largely uninteresting; in fact, I watched the Super Bowl mostly to vet for a) debilitating hits, b) long touchdown passes, and c) good catered food.
Last, and most important, I am a Nets fan. Though the Celtics may be a default “intra-division rival,” and although the two squads met in the playoffs a couple of times in the early 2000’s, it is an onerous task to hate the likes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Eddie House. Much like the Super Bowl, the 2008 NBA Finals pleased me for a reason having nothing to do with my hometown rooting interests.
The Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, whose best player is Kobe Bryant.
I hate—HATE—Kobe Bryant.
I hated him before he’d played a moment in the NBA. Years ago, a local paper profiled the country’s five best high school players. At number two, just below Tim Thomas, was Bryant. The petulance, pretension, and egomania were evident even in that grainy black-and-white: here is an asshole, I thought. Better hope he never makes it.
But, of course, he made it. What’s worse, in the post-Jordan, pre-Lebron’s prime that is our current NBA era, Kobe is undoubtedly the league’s best player. Most talented, clutch, motivated, fearless, and exacting—these are Kobe’s truths, and they are self-evident. He is also, LeBron aside, the game’s most recognizable face.
By all accounts, Kobe is a deplorable teammate. He nixed a dynasty by forcing Laker management to deal Shaquille O’Neal (only one the best 20 best players of all-time) and to disown coach Phil Jackson (only one of the two best coaches of all-time) after Los Angeles lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 championship series. Bryant then ushered in the self-righteous-ball-hog period, a personal three-year hiatus from sportsmanship, professionalism, and accountability. He hoisted a historic number of shots en route to recording a historic amount of points, culminating on January 22, 2006, when he scored 81 points, the second-most ever in a regular-season game, by jacking an unconscionable 66 shots.
That’s 13 three-pointers, 33 two-pointers, and 20 free-throws. Yes, the Lakers beat the Raptors that Sunday, but something far greater was lost: the last shred of Bryant’s already-withering integrity.
Three years prior, just before the Lakers were to embark upon a suicide-blitz on the championship with Shaq, Bryant and the newly-acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton, a woman in Eagle, Colorado accused Bryant of rape.
While the charges were dropped, and virtually no evidence of forced sexual contact ever surfaced, Bryant copped to having slept with the plaintiff—albeit consensually. Reportedly, Bryant made comments to investigators about Shaq's infidelity, widening the distance between the two embattled teammates.
They didn't stay teammates for long. The next off-season, after losing in the Finals, Bryant’s bedwetting PR nightmare from the rape trial only worsened. According to most inside sources, he demanded that ownership cede him the franchise, and encouraged them to export Shaquille O'Neal to Miami. Phil Jackson, who later called Bryant "uncoachable" in a book, quit his post. When the season started, and with the ink still running off Bryant's $136 million contract extension, the Lakers performed woefully and missed the playoffs.
Before the 2007-2008 season, after a run of unremarkable campaigns in which the Lakers couldn’t navigate beyond the first round of the playoffs, Bryant publicly demanded a trade. Then asked to stay. Then demanded a trade again. Los Angeles brass was appalled, incredulous at Bryant’s claim that after the team had mortgaged their present, their superstar, and their sage to clear the path for Bryant’s ascension, Bryant accused them of not working to assemble a more talented roster. Ignoring the obvious irony—that if Shaq and Jackson had stayed, the Lakers likely wouldn’t have been mired in mediocrity—Bryant’s backstab raised another curious conundrum: how do you trade the best player in the league?
It was a query, ultimately, that Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss never answered. The Lakers opened the season, Bryant in tow, on tenuous ground. Kobe was unhappy; the team kinda sucked; although Jackson was back as coach, not even the man who shepherded Michael Jordan and Co. to basketball Olympus could make topiary out of the weeds.
The Lakers hemmed and hawed, unsure as to whether they were a team or Kobe’s team. Teammates lived in fear of the mercurial, condescending superstar, who never thought it in bad taste—not in practice, not in the media, not during games—to scream, tirade, and tantrum in anybody’s, everybody’s direction.
Then, the pinnacle of unjust: the Lakers’ young players started clicking. The Lakers started winning. The “Kobe is a dog” conversation became the “Kobe is a leader of men” conversation. Finally, the Lakers traded for Memphis star Pau Gasol and got hotter than Bryant’s hotel room in Eagle. The “Kobe is a leader of men” conversation became, unbelievably, the “Kobe for Most Valuable Player” conversation. Indeed, the man who tried with all his might, just a few months earlier, to bail on his team, who thought nothing of dressing down and mortifying his teammates, who threw under the bus the organization that gave up everything plus $136 million to keep him, who flouted the coach and conducted himself with horrifying impunity, was the likeliest candidate to be coronated the league’s “most valuable” person.
TNT, ESPN, and ABC broadcast the rest. The Lakers marauded through the playoffs, hack-sawing through the Nuggets, Jazz, and defending champion Spurs with an incandescent offense. In the midst of all this, Kobe did, as predicted, win the MVP, a move that still represents a stultifying blow to the principles that ostensibly underwrite the award.
Doe-eyed broadcasters and analysts sucked at the Kobe teat, championing everything from his leadership (ha!) to his commitment to “team” (ha!) to his similarity to Jordan (triple ha!). The Lakers advanced to the Finals, where they were to take on an uninspiring Celtics team whose playoff run had been every bit as unimpressive as the Lakers’ was dominant.
Jesus Christ: Kobe Bryant was about to lead his team to the NBA championship. A pompous cancer was about to earn inarguable propers for pompous cancers everywhere.
As we know—and as the greatest proof that God exists—Kobe did not win. Instead, he played well, but not exceptionally well, and was out-performed by the Celtics’ Pierce. In the deciding Game 6, Kobe’s cadre got outgunned by a surreal 39 points, a record margin in a clinching contest. The Kobe schlock, disposed of by the Celtic mystique. This, for once, was the universe aligned.
During Game 2 in Boston, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (quoted in my previous blog, “The Un-Sport”) sat next to the Lakers’ bench. In an NBA Finals column, ESPN writer Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons points to Schilling's post-game reflections, which serve to further eviscerate Bryant.
“Kobe. This one stunned me a little bit…what I got to see up close and hear, was unexpected. From the first tip until about 4 minutes left in the game I saw and heard this guy bitch at his teammates. Every TO (time out) he came to the bench pissed, and a few of them he went to other guys and yelled about something they weren’t doing, or something they did wrong. No dialog about “hey let’s go, let’s get after it” or whatever. He spent the better part of 3.5 quarters pissed off and ranting at the non-execution or lack of, of his team…Watching the other 11 guys, every time out it was high fives and “Hey nice work, let’s get after it” or something to that affect. He walked off the floor, obligatory skin contact on the high five, and sat on the bench stone faced or pissed off, the whole game…He’d yell at someone, make a point, or send a message, turn and walk away, and more than once the person on the other end would roll eyes or give a ‘whatever dude’ look.”
It is my sincerest hope that losing these Finals will forever tarnish Bryant’s legacy. I am not a sadist, nor am I a purist—I am, however, a member of society. I’ve met Kobe Bryants, and they are all the same—destructive, self-obsessed, insufferable, and thoroughly unlikeable. They know right from wrong, yet knowingly operate to the contrary. Kobe Bryant—the Kobe Bryant—is wonderfully talented, but he’s hidden his malevolent persona behind virtuosity for far too long.
Here’s to another Boston championship.
Stay Second Place, Kobe