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Simers and Simmons, on Kobe's likability

June 18, 2009 |  9:24 am

Kobe at the parade Over the last 72 hours and change since the Lakers won their title, two articles have examined the Lakers' championship run, with Kobe Bryant's likability a central point.   The Times' T.J. Simers is put off by Bryant's (and Phil Jackson's) "unlikable" personalities, plus the "idolatry" heaped upon a team largely identified with said unlikable principles.  ESPN's Bill Simmons, green Celtic blood pumping through his veins, concurs and thus questions the media's postseason narrative praising Bryant's willingness to share and teammate relationships (plus the how he stacks up against "you know who").  Predictably, both pieces provoked a reaction among many a Laker fan (none too favorable, which prompted a follow up from Simers), so I thought it was worth sharing my thoughts on both.

On a certain, very specific level, I get Simers' viewpoint.  It's hard to refute any opinion that Phil Jackson can be smug and arrogant.  (Granted, he's always cordial to me and I get along fine with him, but that doesn't change the truth.)  Or that Kobe is less outwardly friendly than the majority of his teammates.  (Granted, he's always cordial to me and I get along fine with him, but that doesn't change the truth.)  Both can be fairly insulated, high maintenance and guilty of taking oneself too seriously.  That arguably has zilch to do with the on-court product, much less the ultimate goal of winning a title, but it's difficult to root for a team without rooting for its players.  

Should those personality traits be enough to sully a title run?  That's up for each person to individually decide. 

Personally, even if I despised Kobe and Phil, between my appreciation for the achievement, the Laker Lakers celebrate supporting cast's collectively good personalities (even Simers doesn't seem to dispute this), and my natural Laker leanings, I'd likely still be excited by the O'Brien.  Lord knows I found the Kobe-Shaq quarrels tedious, but every time the trophy was raised, I raised my fist along with it.  However, if Simers' cup of tea is Earl Grey and he can't get past Kobe and Phil's "Oolong" flavor, fair enough.  Who am I to deem somebody's aesthetic reaction "wrong?" 

I do, however, take exception with Simers on a couple of points, most notably taking fans to task over a lack of "priorities."  

From the original piece...

     You want to have a parade and scream your lungs out for a job well done, then invite the young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to walk down Figueroa Street and be feted like heroes in the Coliseum.

And the follow up...

     There were a pair of officers who had pulled a woman to safety from an armed man, another who had saved the life of a child found not breathing, still another wounded calling for help from two more officers, who then exposed themselves to potential harm.  No parade. Most of the late-arriving crowd to Dodger Stadium having no idea what took place in pregame introductions.  Just think if Sasha or Luke had elected to attend the game, though, their faces appearing on the scoreboard -- everyone in the place really going crazy.   Tonight it will be L.A. firemen lining up along the first base line, everyone probably too pooped from the Lakers' parade to arrive in time to notice.

      99% of the times I've heard a politician play the "the ______ are the real heroes" card, typically to express "priorities in place," the sentiment felt transparently convenient and phony.  Well, doesn't feel much different when the messenger is a journalist.  Most people (even your average moronic sports fan) are well aware that, in the grand scheme of things, soldiers risking their lives for this country and facing stakes more crucial than anything decided between the lines, are owed a larger debt of gratitude than professional athletes.  This is just incredibly obvious, and without a specific context that deems a reminder appropriate (for example, when BK and I joined The Steve Mason Show to entertain veterans at the VA hospital), going there will likely come off more "self important" than "selfless." 

Simers is correct that far more noble professions receive far too little recognition and/or pay.  But does he honestly believe a willingness to wildly celebrate athletic achievement and grounded perspectives are mutuallyPolice taking pics exclusive?  Is it really impossible to care about the Lakers' success and what awaits a soldier upon returning home?  Maybe it's just me, but that feels like a major reach, and to essentially lecture people for failure to attend a parade that was never thrown is (on its best day) wildly assumptive and (on its worst day) a very cheap attempt at "justifying" indifference toward the Lakers.  If you want to be a curmudgeon, no worries.  To use these soldiers, policemen, firemen- many for whom sports serve as an escape from their dangerous, underpaid, under-appreciated jobs- as pawns for a column is simply bad taste.

I also question simultaneously chiding folks for a devotion to sports while earning decades' worth of checks by fostering that devotion.  If not flat out hypocritical, it's certainly "hypocritical adjacent."  Yes, sports are quite trivial when viewed against a backdrop of life or death matters.  I would never begrudge him (or any writer) if he decided sports wasn't worth his time and desired to write more "relevant" stories.  Particularly a writer with Simers' gifts and a big enough profile for career reinvention.  But you can't have it both ways.  As the saying goes, if you're not part of the solution...

Like Simers, Simmons' distaste for The Mamba is as well kept a secret as Lindsay Lohan's dating life.  Again, he's allowed an opinion, and I don't need to rehash why I couldn't care less.  I was more interested in two points The Sports Guy raised about how the media presents Bryant.  One rather perceptive, another where I think he tripped over a larger reality to make his case.

After listing the highlights of Kobe's stellar 2007-2009 (last season's MVP award and Finals appearance, an Olympic gold won in some part through Bryant's influencing younger teammates, back-to-back 82 game seasons, his fourth title, etc.), Simmons places that two year stretch among some hefty "two year" company:  Bill Russell (1961-63), Jerry West (1964-66), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68), Bill Russell (1967-69), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-72), Larry Bird (1985-87), Magic Johnson (1986-88), Michael Jordan (1990-92), Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-95), Michael Jordan (1996-98) and Tim Duncan (2001-03).

From there, Simmons makes a request...

        I would rather see Kobe linked with everyone above and not just Jordan, if only because the MJ Kobe with jersey comparisons are tiresome. We're never seeing another Jordan, just like we're never seeing another Brando or Lennon. It's just not happening. They might compare statistically and stylistically, but Jordan could command a room of 10 people or 20,000 and get the exact same reaction: Every set of eyes trained on him for as long as he was there. His personality, his charisma, his aura, his passion ... indescribable. Like nothing I have ever seen. Nobody remembers this now because he hasn't played in awhile, but Jordan was always the coolest guy in the room. Without fail. He was like Doctor J. crossed with Sinatra. Remember those dopey ads when somebody said, "My broker is E.F. Hutton," and everyone else in the room froze? That was what happened to an arena when Jordan walked in. You would freeze, and you would hear screams, and then it would be a sea of lightbulbs. And everyone was saying the same thing, "I get to say I watched Michael Jordan."

That sound you just heard was the nail's head being hit.  And beyond charisma discrepancies and the comparisons being more played out than ER's billion year run, the Kobe-Jordan thing is ridiculous because 23 has an innate advantage over 24.  Jordan benefited from the perfect storm of a league slowly on the rise and advertising innovation, both of which pimped MJ as "the face."  That drastically affects perception, to the point where it felt like at times like Jordan was reinventing the wheel.  Even when you're incredibly gifted, timing is still everything.  Being seen as the "prototype" gave Jordan a major ace up his sleeve.

That advantage transformed Jordan into basketball's version of the Beatles, pop music's permanent gold standard.  They arrived at the perfect time, were wildly innovative, defined an era, and broke up before crap would have inevitably been churned out.  Game over, man.  You can't beat that.  No band will ever be widely considered more important than John, Paul, George and RIngo, precisely because if such heights are reached, Fab Four comparisons are unavoidable.   Ditto Kobe and Michael. 

Stevie Ray To make another musical comparison, Kobe has often reminded me of Stevie Ray Vaughn to Jordan's Jimi Hendrix.  In my estimation (and it seemed like at least some critics agreed), SRV came the closest to challenging Jimi's universal "#1 guitar god" status.  Too many years wasted while wasted and an early death ultimately shut down Vaugn's dethroning efforts, but ultimately, I think Stevie would have come up short, regardless of what his Stratocaster produced.  Why?  Because Jimi is the gold standard who emerged at the perfect time, and that's nearly impossible to trump.  And Kobe could do a hell of a lot worse than Stevie Ray, even if the circumstances aren't truly "fair."  It is what it is.  I just wish more people would recognize Jordan's undeniable trump card while explaining "the reasons" why Kobe will "never be MJ."  Until Bryant wins somewhere between six and sixty rings, he's battling one seriously stacked deck. 

I also agree with Simmons that, as the playoffs progressed, the "Kobe learned to trust his teammates and changed" talk was shoved down our throats ad nauseum.  Our reasons for displeasure, however, were completely different.  Simmons didn't buy what was being sold, and went to great lengths to disprove coverage he found increasingly contrived.  I didn't agree with much of the evidence cited, but that's neither here nor there.  I mostly objected to getting treated like Phil Connors in "Groundhog Day," a factor I'm surprised Simmons missed.

Contrary to what Simmons remembers, "selfish Kobe doesn't get it" wasn't the storyline during 2008's playoffs.  It was actually, "Kobe finally learned to trust his teammates."  Remember?  The season where he discovered these Lakers were much better than expected (even before Pau Gasol's arrival), began truly believing in his supporting cast, and was rewarded for that faith with an MVP trophy and a trip to the Finals.  If he believed in those guys, why is it so noteworthy that an improved crew still had that trust?  It felt like the entire 2008 season was shoved inside a vault and completely forgotten about (save the Lakers being pegged as a "finesse team," of course). 

Or, as I suspect, everyone was caught with their pants down after suddenly and unexpectedly being robbed of "Kobe vs. LeBron."  There's always a push to focus on stars (although, as Simmons rightly notes, there are plenty of interesting role player stories to go around).  The Average Joe doesn't know Hedo Turkoglu or Rashard LewisGasol is pretty low key.  "Lamar Odom loves candy" was milked Kobe and the trophy bone dry.  Dwight Howard played below expectations.  Thus, you're left with Kobe, matched up against nobody in particular.  Nothing new to "examine," but time must be killed, so cue up the reruns.  I wonder if Simmons fell victim to this syndrome as well.  I'm a big fan of Simmons, but his piece felt mostly like a rehash of issues raised in his previous two posts about the Lakers and Kobe.  Like he had nothing new to add, but felt obligated to speak on the topic, which results in forced points.  Ditto much of what was said about Kobe- and his teammates, for that matter- during the playoffs.  

Old narratives can be difficult to shake.  Pau Gasol is "soft," even though he came up huge in physical matches against Boston, Cleveland, and three previous playoff rounds.  Lamar Odom is "inconsistent," even though he was among the steadiest of Lakers, save a few games spent immediately following his back injury.   The Lakers "lacking a killer instinct," even though they had eight double digit wins before heading into the Finals.  And Kobe was apparently "discovering the joys of teammate belief."   That just how the media rolls at times. 

Just a little food for thought with a parade wrapped up and Kobe about to address the media for his exit interview.