Jun 14, 2010
Extensions of a Man
When I began watching the game of basketball Gerald Ford was the President of the United States, people listened to music on cassette tapes, and Kobe Bryant's father, Jellybean, was still in college. Kobe was yet to be born. I remember watching Kareem play the Pistons, when Kareem still played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Pistons still played their home games at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. Mind you, I was a very young kid myself at the time. My love for the game was immediate though and has now evolved over a lengthy period of time. In other words, I've seen a lot of basketball!
Long before I had ever taken a graduate school class, I was a scholar of the game. Once I added the rigors of a doctorate in Critical Studies to my repertoire, I had a whole new language to talk about this game and all that it entails. My passion developed over years and years, coupled with a knowledge base that now helped me express my thoughts in completely original ways.
The game for me has always been deeper than what we see on the court. I have often celebrated the game of basketball as a unique window through which one might come to understand the nuances of American life. Baseball writers have for years articulated such profound thoughts as it pertains to their favorite sport, but in basketball, more often than not, we are burdened with the tedious, insignificant fan boy ramblings of someone like Bill Simmons. On the other hand, I must say big ups to the man I like to call "Lester Young," President Barack Obama, for using his office to give basketball a bigger and more substantive profile in the culture at large.
I am writing here as the Celtics lead the Lakers three games to two in the NBA Finals, with the Lakers trying to stay alive, needing a win in Game 6 on their home floor to avoid getting defeated by the Celtics for the second time since 2008. The challenge set before Kobe and the Lakers is a daunting challenge indeed. They must win two games in a row, something that they have not done against Boston in the 2008 series, nor during this year's Finals. How will Kobe and his team respond to the challenge?
Can Kobe climb the mountain of greatness set before him? Will he be able to "move on up a lil' higher" as Mahalia Jackson might say?
I find this challenge to be particularly appropriate for Kobe. If he can lead his team to victory in this series it will demonstrate that he is not only an extremely talented player, but also a true leader and one of the game's all time elite figures. Some say he has already demonstrated that he belongs in conversations with the game's best. I disagree. Kobe has had a lot handed to him and he has accomplished a lot as well. But he has never shown the ability to lead his squad through what appeared to be insurmountable circumstances like these he now faces. Not to mention, he has also quit on several occasions, most notably Game 7 against Phoenix in 2007.
One of the main reasons that I've always been so hard on Kobe is because I think people conferred greatness upon him before he had really earned it. Kobe seemed to expect that others should just accept his greatness as a given and this has usually been the case throughout his career. Well now he has a real chance to show and prove, as they say. Bringing a team back from the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals is the kind of thing that he needs on his resume, if he wants the accolades that go with being considered among the elite in the game's history.
When you get to this stage in the Finals it's about more than just basketball skills. It's about mental comportment, it's about basketball IQ, it's about who wants it more. It's about desire. It's like my man Branford Marsalis says in Ken Burns' Jazz documentary when discussing Elvin Jone's approach to playing with John Coltrane, "you gotta be willing to die with a muthafucka!" Yeah, that's what it's all about, the willingness to figuratively die with and for your solders in order to accomplish a higher goal.
Is Kobe willing to go there? Is he even made that way? Or is he such a smugly, entitled prima donna that he feels like he should never have to exert that much aggressive human emotion and force of will to reach his desired destiny? Does he feel as though he has to earn it or does he feel like it should be bestowed upon him by fiat? Having watched him his entire NBA career, it's clear that he's never been willing to "die" for his team, but it is this type of sacrifice that he will have to perform if he wants another championship ring.
While watching Kobe go off last night in the third quarter of Game 5, it was quite apparent that he still has not figured out how to have a game as a high volume scorer and keep his teammates involved with the stakes being what they are. This is what leaders do, they inspire others, often to play beyond their own perceived abilities. Leaders don't get to blow off their defeats by complaining that they are not getting any help. Kobe's only been playing in the league, what fourteen years now?! Statue of limitations is up on the no help excuse by this point.
Which brings me to this point. As great as Kobe has been as a pro, he would be that much better if he had gone to college for a few years. There are moments when it's clear that as talented as Kobe is, he is still lacking when it comes to certain aspects of his approach to the game. Sure, he can act and sound like Jordan all he wants, but Jordan always stepped up for his. Kobe, on the other hand, is a good actor.
If Kobe had ever been properly coached in his developmental years, if he had learned a few things about retaining his individuality within the team context, if he had learned that sometimes being the best player on the floor still doesn't mean that your team will win, his overall game would be even that much more refined. I'm sorry, but there are too many moments when he still looks like that kid shooting all those air balls in Utah back in '97.
I could certainly say the same about thing LeBron too. At least Kobe does have rings. But if Kobe and his supporters want him to be talked about with the game's greats, then do what all the great ones do. Overcome some difficult obstacles, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, not in some meaningless regular season game, in the Finals, where it counts.
There was a moment in last night's game when they were comparing Kobe's performance to that of Isiah Thomas in 1988. Isiah, perhaps the game's most underrated player in it's history, hobbled on one leg while torching Michael Cooper and the Lakers for 42. The Pistons got robbed when the infamous "phantom foul" was called on Bill Laimbeer, who clearly did not come close to touching Kareem. Isiah and the Pistons went down swinging, only to lose by a point. They lost the final game by three points, when the referee failed to maintain order as fans rushed the floor with a second left on the clock, even though Magic fouled Isiah; a foul that was never called. A year later Isiah and the Pistons swept the Lakers to win their first NBA title. Isiah is one of the realest players in NBA history. Kobe doesn't come close to matching Zeke's grit and toughness.
Yeah, Kobe beat the Magic last year, but how hard was that? When your starting center wants to argue with another grown men over who the real Superman is and is so soft that Jordan Farmar can snatch the ball of his hands, in spite of a huge size advantage, that tells you that you are playing an inferior squad.
If Kobe is on Jordan's level, then now is the time to show it. Jordan never lost in the Finals. As I've aid before, we live in a society now where people often become great simply be declaring that they're great. But greatness, true greatness, must be earned. Kobe is a great individual player. That is without question. But he and his supporters want to say he's transcendent, that he's the greatest of all time. For that, he will need to show more heart, more leadership, and prove that he can excel when his back is completely up against the wall.
To whom much is given, much is required. It's time to separate the platinum from the white gold now. Man up, Kobe! It's times like this when true champions emerge and show the world what they're really made of. At this point the series has come down to who is willing to lay it all on the line. Is that you, Kobe? Are you a leader of men or just a glorified human highlight package on Sports Center? We'll see....