Bryant not always loved, but respected everywhere

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

Watching Kobe Bryant doin' work on the Bulls in relative peace Tuesday night was a reminder that there's always a way back.

Bryant wasn't booed during the one-man show he staged in the first quarter - despite tormenting defender Kirk Heinrich repeatedly en route to 20 points in the period - and even elicited scattered chants of ``MVP! MVP!'' following a dunk in the closing seconds of the Lakers' convincing 96-87 win. Five years ago, when Bryant was standing trial on a rape charge that was later dropped, even that bit of grudging admiration from fans on the road would have been almost unthinkable.

``We build up icons and we tear them down,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson mused before the game, when asked to compare the firestorm of criticism Bryant faced to the one engulfing Tiger Woods. ``As much as they've been built up, they've been torn down.

``I saw it with Michael, obviously, as part of his retirement. There was the scandal about his gambling and so forth,'' Jackson continued, referring to Jordan and their days together with the Bulls. ``Those things are all redeemable. If you come back and show your character, and your character is about winning and about doing the job right, that'll happen.''

While no two falls from grace are exactly alike - Woods stands accused of serial adultery, but not breaking the law - Jackson was right about this much: Sports fans are suckers for second acts.

Not all of them end well, of course. Mike Tyson left jail a bigger drawing card than he went in, but did precious little with that opportunity beyond digging a deeper hole for himself. ``Why would anyone expect Mike to come out smarter?'' promoter Lou Duva reasoned at the time, providing a perfect prologue for Tyson's second act. ``He went to prison for three years, not Princeton.''

Bryant doesn't like to talk about the few semesters he spent in the school of hard knocks, walking away from a reporter who broached the topic in Los Angeles a few days ago. But there's no question he mastered the important lessons.

They weren't just about playing great basketball, since Bryant proved even in the midst of the trial, that he could handle that kind of pressure. He averaged 24 points that season and played all 82 games, including several after being whisked from a Colorado courtroom and delivered to the basketball court in a private jet and limousines.

Until then, teamwork was something the other guys on Bryant's team were supposed to worry about. But in short order, Lakers owner Jerry Buss ran off Shaquille O'Neal and Jackson - since rehired - and gave Bryant a long-term contract, essentially pushing all his chips to the center of the table in a gamble that Bryant would come back a changed man. What Buss had in mind was not a better jump shot, but someone with the leadership qualities Bryant always parroted, but never really practiced.

We know now how that experiment turned out. Whether Bryant is a changed man away from the court, only his wife and family know. But on it, what always seemed like anger suddenly became purpose, as though he finally realized his legacy depended on not being just the best player on the floor every night, but the one who makes everyone else around him better.

That's the Bryant who emerges, finally, from Spike Lee's documentary, ``Kobe Doin' Work,'' a former gunslinger-turned-sheriff who makes it his responsibility to keep everyone pointed in the same direction. After winning a championship last season, the Lakers have begun this one in imposing fashion. That's because of Bryant, who finds little adulation away from the Staples Center, but has earned respect everywhere.

The parallels to Woods, as noted above, aren't exact. But it's interesting that according to one report, Woods told a friend during a phone conversation the day following his car crash that he was thinking about running out to a jewelry store to buy a ``Kobe Special.'' That, Woods explained a moment later, was a ring with a huge diamond attached, ``a house on a finger.''

It's hard to imagine Woods - at the moment, anyway - holding a press conference to make a tearful confession of his sins, the way Bryant did a half-dozen years ago, when the rape charges were first announced. But it's easy to picture Woods, after an appropriate time away devoted to trying to salvage his marriage, returning to the sport he dominated with enough motivation to last the rest of his golfing life.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.



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