Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kobe, Once More Unto the Light

The bare facts: The Los Angeles Lakers dominated the Orlando Magic over the last three quarters to take Game 5 and clinch the NBA title, winning going away, 99-86. After a 16-0 run (capped by a nifty Lamar Odom reverse lay-up) took the Lakers from a 40-36 deficit to a 52-40 lead, the Magic never seriously threatened to take the game back, getting no closer than five points the rest of the way and spending most of the second half down by double digits.

Bryant was, I felt, the clear-cut MVP of this series, and of the playoffs, and even when his game was somewhat off in the middle three games of the series, he cast his enormous shadow over how the games were contested. Whether or not you thought he was over-dominating the ball, whenever he was on the floor, he set the tone for the other nine players.

In some sense, for most of his career, he has cast that same shadow on the NBA. For better or for worse (and there have been no shortage of those who see it for the worse), he has been the top talking point of the league. From his unbelievable moves on the court to his embarrassing personal problems in Colorado, his life trajectory thus far has been an eventful one. His triumphs and travails have galvanized public opinion like no other player, possibly in the history of the league. To Kobe haters, Kobe fans are as thin-skinned as their hero, reacting to any perceived slight as though it were heresy; to Kobe fans, Kobe haters seize any opportunity, twist any circumstance, and trample any logic to put the target of their envy in a negative light. Each group sees the other as the yin to its yang, a state of affairs that would be ludicrous with respect to any other player. But apparently it's de rigeur in Kobe's World.

Through it all, Bryant was insouciant, an outwardly joyous 18-year-old rookie; then a driven talent, rising with center Shaquille O'Neal to dominate a trembling league; and then a fallen hero, commonly considered to have forced O'Neal and then coach Phil Jackson off the team. The haters had a field day watching Kobe try, and fail, to lead a ragtag crew to even the lower echelons of the playoffs, pride going before the fall. Jackson returned the following season, but the next two years were barely an improvement, with the Lakers falling to the Phoenix Suns each year in the first round. His undeniable skills on the court were only further testament, it seemed, to his failure to lead his team off it. Bryant himself appeared to adopt the demeanor of a flawed, secretive superhero with a dark past and a darker future, Batman to O'Neal's Superman. The 2007 off-season was the darkest yet, with Bryant railing to all within hearing range about the front office's inability to provide him with a sufficient supporting cast.

The next season brought a pleasant surprise, however, in the unexpected form of a contending team. And when rising young center Andrew Bynum went down with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, the beleaguered Lakers' front office obtained multi-talented Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for a song, and the Lakers barely missed a beat. Bryant seemed readier than ever to share the ball with his teammates, making the team less predictable, more formidable. There was a regular season MVP for Bryant, his first, matching O'Neal's award from 2000. Even with Bynum out, the Lakers manhandled the rest of the Western Conference on the way to the NBA Finals. The Batsuit was ready to crack. But the Celtics sunk the Lakers in six games, trouncing L.A. by 39 in the clincher.

Back to the cave. Not alone, not to sulk, but this time with all his teammates, forging something of a defensive identity. Bryant and the Lakers were determined that this time would not be the monstrous disappointment of the previous season. There would be no MVP award this year. That would go to LeBron James, the new King. Bryant had no time for regular season plaudits anyway. He wasn't looking for redemption, either; he never felt he had anything he had to redeem himself for. What he was looking for, I like to imagine, was a lighter Kobe Bryant...

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