Kobe Bryant is much more heroic in his current role as gallant, doomed warrior than he ever was a conquering ruler.
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This thought occurred to me Monday when I was chatting with Pat O’Brien and Steve Hartman on FOX Sports Radio about Kobe, LeBron James and Tiger Woods positioning themselves for total redemption from their personal indiscretions and/or public-relations nightmares.
James is in position to pick up his fourth MVP trophy and second NBA title. Tiger is once again the favorite to win the Masters and get his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championships back on track.
For Kobe, things are a bit different. He’s not likely to pick up any new trinkets for his trophy room. But his story of redemption is just as compelling and significant.
When Kobe ruled the NBA, he always struck me as King Joffrey, an immature, narcissistic kid pretending to be king (see "Game of Thrones" on HBO) by mimicking all of the previous king’s worst qualities. Kobe was a cheap knockoff of Michael Jordan. Kobe walked, talked and played like his idol, Air Jordan, and exercised a level of ruthlessness that would make Jordan jealous.
Kobe overthrew Shaq and then threw a tantrum until the league delivered the necessary pieces (Pau Gasol) for Kobe to rule the NBA.
I could never buy in. Kobe seemed inauthentic. In the aftermath of his Colorado indiscretion, The Fresh Prince of Basketball placed a silly tattoo on his right arm, bought an overpriced apology ring and squabbled with The Mailman over harmless flirtation with Vanessa.
King Kobe was King Joffrey.
People loved Kobe because of their affection for the previous king. We wanted the next Jordan, and Kobe tried to give us what we wanted.
I like Kobe as Ned Stark, the principled and virtuous hand of King Robert Baratheon. This is a role that fits Kobe and exposes him as a true hero.
We know the Lakers cannot win a title this year. The organization is flawed. Jim Buss is an idiot. The man passed over the chance to rehire Phil Jackson and instead gave the task of meshing Kobe’s talent with Dwight Howard’s to Mike D’Antoni, the coach capable of making the Lakers’ oldest and fourth-most talented player (Steve Nash) happy.
With 18 games left in the regular season, the Lakers are two games above .500 and locked in a tie with the Utah Jazz for the last playoff spot in the West.
And yet Kobe is playing some of the best basketball of his career. This is truly remarkable. At age 34, Kobe is averaging 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and shooting a career high .475 from the field.
I have been slow to warm to Kobe for a number of reasons. I’ve already stated a few of the reasons: The Jordan imitation rubbed me the wrong way, his feud with Shaq, his behavior following his Colorado mistake.
In a previous column, I admitted I’m a hardcore, lifelong Magic Johnson fan. It bothers me that some foolish people argue that Kobe is the greatest Laker, ahead of Magic. It might be impossible for me to judge Kobe objectively until his career is over and he’s no longer a threat to Magic’s legacy.
Earlier this season, I blamed Kobe for Howard’s poor start to the season. Kobe’s alpha-male, smartest-person-in-the-room personality makes it hard for him to play with people who don’t share his basketball-is-the-most-important-thing-on-the-planet approach. Kobe would’ve lasted about three seasons with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before starting a blood war over Kareem’s lack of emotion.
Now, I view the Lakers’ rocky season and Kobe’s role in it much differently.
Stuck with a bad coach, Kobe has tried everything he can think of to inspire his teammates. He has been the ultimate gunner, determined to single-handedly will his team to victory. He’s been the ultimate fourth-quarter gunner, determined to single-handedly close out opponents with last-minute brilliance. He’s been the ultimate facilitator, determined to feed his teammates easy looks to boost their confidence. And he’s finally settled into being the ultimate all-around player, determined to give his team whatever it needs on a night-to-night basis.
I respect what he’s doing. He knows that this season is likely to end with his head on a chopping block, the sword swung by Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant or maybe even Chris Paul. Kobe knows he’s going to be denied the showdown he desperately wants with the Kingslayer (LeBron).
Futile ambition is heroic.
If Kobe avoids a late-season meltdown/tirade and takes his beheading like a man, he will be as popular and respected as he’s ever been. He will silence his critics, those of us who have long questioned his character during times of adversity.
Kobe Bryant as Ned Stark is a Kobe Bryant worthy of being placed alongside (or even ahead of) Magic Johnson.