LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 21: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hoists the championship trophy as he rides past a mural featuring himself during the victory parade for the the NBA basketball champion team on June 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 87-79 in 7 games for the franchise's 16 NBA title. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
There isn't a Lakers topic more difficult to write about than Kobe Bryant. His depth both as a player and a person is far more vast than any one post or discussion could adequately cover. On the court, he's so far entrenched in a team's offense and defense that it's extremely difficult to assess just how positively or negatively he affects a team's performance. No matter what type of negative statistical spin some writers want to assign him or how much idiomatic praise others want to heap on him, the beauty of Kobe's game is that the best way to assess the man is simply to watch him play basketball.
Off the court, Bryant is just as polarizing. He's one of the most instantly recognizable figures the world over, and yet there's so much about him shrouded in mystery. There have been hundreds of Kobe interviews over his 16-year career and literally thousands of minutes of on-screen airtime, and yet, we still spout responses like "It's hard to know how Kobe will react". He's an extremely intelligent man who perhaps by design constantly holds back something from the audience. Not to sound too dramatic, but Kobe is both a person we know all too well and yet not at all.
For Lakers fans, it's hard not to love Kobe despite this dichotomy. He's played in 14 All-Star games, seven NBA Finals, won five titles and been on the court for more minutes than just 16 men in league history. Despite all of his experience, Kobe is still universally recognized as the hardest working player in the NBA, never taking a night off and playing every single game like it were the playoffs. Bryant's "clutchness" or aptitude in taking the last shot of the game has been much maligned as of late, but in the latest 2011-2012 NBA GM survey, Kobe was voted the best in that situation by a landslide. Bill Simmons, one of the most recognized and visible Lakers haters out there, has written that Kobe is one of the top 10 players ever to live. Not that Simmons is the end-all, be-all of deciding who is great or not, but it certainly is telling of how the general population feels about Bryant. On the whole, Kobe is one of the most popular entertainers on the planet.
So why is it that Lakers Nation feels he's still one of the most hated in the game?
This claim isn't without merit. Make no mistake, Kobe still has his fair share of detractors. Bryant is consistently on the top of polls for "most hated players in the league", while simultaneously in the "most popular players in the league". He is booed in every single opposing team's building he enters, some more vociferously than others. As has been the story for his entire career, Bryant is still called out for his volume shooting, though that same part of his game has also helped him win five championships. Kobe is still the in-game perfectionist he's always been, demanding as much from his teammates as he does from himself. Unfortunately, that manifests itself negatively on the court, sometimes bordering on cruel and embarrassing. Moreover, Bryant isn't always the picture of a perfect interview, with his sometimes surly demeanor painting him with the type of coldness with which he approaches his profession. In short, Kobe's personality can leave a lot to be desired. The haters, it seems, have their points, and so do the heaps of Lakers fans that claim that no matter what his accomplishments on the court and success off it, Kobe will never get the proper respect owed to him.
As we ramp up for the beginning of the 2012-2013 NBA season, we on SS&R have been discussing what's to become of Kobe in the coming seasons as he nears the end of his career. Though I've long been aware of the typical Lakers fan's defensive nature regarding Kobe (I'm certainly not exempt), it seems that the general interpretation is that the climate surrounding Bryant is still filled with as many doubters as in years past. I couldn't disagree more.
While I believe that Kobe is still underrated historically, his standing in the public eye has never been better (even his ranking as an all-time NBA player is curbed by the very nature of his career position; very rarely are players properly given their correct credit during his active playing career). In a lot of ways, I get the sense that Lakers fans feel that the Kobe haters far outnumber the admirers. I can't imagine that anyone feels that the general dislike of Bryant is as high as it was in 2004, but he certainly isn't the media darling that Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose have become. No matter how many more points Kobe scores or rings he has a chance to garner, it seems that Lakers fans feel like people will always find a way to deride him.
Even with the advent of social media and a 24/7 news cycle, the daily criticism I read and hear about Kobe pales in comparison to nearly a decade ago. At the time, Kobe and the Lakers had just been crushed in the NBA Finals by the Detroit Pistons, with Bryant shooting just 38% from the field and turning the ball over nearly 4 times per game. This was followed by most people (incorrectly) feeling that Bryant was the driving force behind Shaquille O'Neal being shipped to Miami, when in reality it was that the 32 year-old center wanted a $100 million dollar contract extension despite averaging just 67 games a season during his tenure in Los Angeles. Along with Shaq, Phil Jackson's book "The Last Season" had painted Kobe as an immature brat who was incredibly difficult to coach. All of these storylines meant nothing relative to the serious situation he faced outside of basketball; a rape charge in Colorado stemming from a 2003 incident. Though Kobe was never actually tried (the charges were dropped when the accuser refused to testify in court), nor did he ever admit guilt, Kobe did cop to adultery. Bryant perhaps was the best player in the league then, but truly couldn't have sunk any lower in terms of his personal and professional image, and perhaps rightfully so. Criticism and condemnation rained down on Kobe for years following, which was only fueled by trade requests both for himself and others, as well as a visible and sometimes vocal disdain for his teammates.
It's not 2004 anymore. Since then, Kobe has won an MVP award, two championships and two Finals MVPs. He continues to climb the ladder of historical NBA accomplishment lists, toppling Hall of Famers by the month. His five titles leave him behind just Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Robert Horry and a handful of Celtics who won championships in a league with half the number of teams there are now. There's no conversation you could have with any NBA fan worth conversing with that could suggest Kobe isn't anything but at least a top-10 player of all-time.
Off the court, Kobe's earning power is as high as it's ever been. He is the most recognizable non-soccer playing professional athlete on the entire planet. According to forbes.com, Kobe collects the second-highest amount in endorsement checks in the league, next to LeBron James. Number 24 jerseys continue to fly off the shelf, landing him in the top five of sales every single year. On a recent trip to China, Bryant solidified his position as the the most populous country in the world's most popular athlete. In fact (and this is a crude metric), typing in "Kobe hated" will grab you 1,250,000 google hits. "Kobe loved"? 20,900,000 search results. Just as a comparison, "LeBron hated" fetches 1,180,000 hits and "LeBron loved" gets around 4,470,000. Just because Kobe's likeness is on a Coca-Cola ad doesn't necessarily mean everyone loves him, but you can bet that advertisers wouldn't plaster the Mamba's face on their products by the boatload if they thought most people felt negatively about him.
The media for the most part has gotten particularly pro-Kobe. Over the years, national broadcasters have softened on the once-abrasive Mamba, heaping more praise on him than criticism. Kobe's legend has grown to the proportions that mentioning his name will almost certainly be accompanied by the requisite paragraph about his place amongst the game's greats. Up until this season, Kenny Smith and some of his co-workers on TNT continued to debate whether or not LeBron or Kobe was the best player in the league, when it had been very apparent that James had outgrown Bryant years before. In a more current example, Kobe's performance in this year's Olympics left a lot to be desired. Bryant shot only 42% for the tournament, but took the fourth most shots on a team laden with superstars and more efficient players. Aside from a dynamic couple of games towards the end of the two week tourney, Kobe played surprisingly poorly. Years ago, Kobe would have been absolutely roasted for such a performance. In 2012? Nary a word of concern.
Moreover, TrueHoop aside, most outlets seem to overlook Kobe's questionable shot selection and growing inefficiency just because of the sheer magnitude of his name. Regardless of whether or not you agree with some of Henry Abbott's obtuse points, it's pretty clear to those that watch Kobe day in and day out that his fourth-quarter inefficiency is becoming more and more glaring. However, pundits and writers alike still marvel at Kobe's "clutchness" at the end of games when we all seem to know better. In fact, for those of you that look at advanced analytics closely, Kobe's PER was 16th amongst qualifiers this year, and 6th amongst guards. Regardless, Kobe still made 1st Team All-NBA, an award voted upon by the media. There's no doubt that Bryant still had his unnecessary detractors, but the truth is that if anything, the media and fans have actually made him out to be slightly better than he really is at this point in his career.
We as Lakers fans, and especially Kobe fans, are always incredibly sensitive to any criticism of the Mamba, maybe to a fault. We've all spent so many years defending a man who was undervalued that at this point, it feels weird to see him getting so much credit from outside our community. Now the argument has evolved from a player who wasn't getting enough respect even though he was the best in the game to an older veteran who's significance is waning with every LeBron James dunk and Kevin Durant jumper. The sordid truth is that we've become overly defensive of Kobe, when it's pretty unnecessary to do so.
At this point in his career, even the most fervent Lakers hater would admit a begrudging respect for the player that no doubt killed their favorite team in years past. I would never go so far as to say he's "liked" by the NBA fanbase at large, but there isn't the same type of criticism attached to every single word coming out of his mouth anymore. Moving forward, media detail surrounding Kobe will only get progressively positive, as it usually does when legendary sports figures begin to reach their twilight. In recent years Kobe has noticeably mellowed, with off-court transgressions becoming few and far between and the headlines becoming less salacious. Perhaps Kobe is more comfortable with who he is as a person or as a basketball player, but as usual, it's hard to tell with him. I expect any future success to further dampen criticism; let's just say that with the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers go on to win another one or two titles. This leaves Kobe, who would have to be instrumental in both, with six or seven rings. He'd arguably be the most successful non-merger player ever, and one of the greatest champions the sporting world had ever seen. Let's not lose sight here, Lakers fans, of how championships change public perception; LeBron just won his first NBA title and look at the turn that the NBA community has taken on him from last June until now.
Yes, Kobe will always be hated, but this is merely a symptom of the greats being hated for being great. Look at Derek Jeter, Tom Brady and Eli Manning; they are in many ways far less controversial than Kobe, but winners all the same and criticized nonetheless. Yes, every errant TrueHoop article or John Hollinger slight opens up old wounds, but if a few journalists and bloggers want to unleash an illogical comment or two, none of us should be bothered to respond to such shortsightedness and sometimes outright idiocy. Kobe's place in history is secure right now, let alone in two, three or four years' time. Haters gonna hate, my friends. In 2012, we should all be thankful that the media storm around Kobe has been reduced to mere cloudy skies.
Follow this writer @TheGreatMambino