Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Kobe Bryant: What a Difference a Year Makes

But Is It All a Scheme?

By Anthony Peretore

Flashback to June 2003: NBA fans received a bit of a shock when the San Antonio Spurs knocked off the three-time defending Champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. The Spurs went on to win their second title in five seasons and subsequently sent the Lakers organization into an uncontrollable tailspin. For three straight years the Lakers had thrived under Coach Phil Jackson and their unstoppable tandem of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But just as the team appeared to be shaping into the immortal force they had been recognized as in the ‘80s, the Spurs put an end to their run at a fourth straight championship. To make matters worse, that summer, several tumultuous distractions began to develop that would ultimately lead to the destruction of their entire team. A year and a half later, the consequences have left ownership, players, and fans all wondering if their Los Angeles Lakers will ever recover.

The centerpiece to all of this turbulence has unquestionably been Kobe Bryant. A short time ago he was regarded as a prospering young superstar, a player loved, or at least respected, by the majority of the sports world. Unfortunately, one regrettable decision has prompted a dreadful domino effect in Kobe’s life, causing almost everyone he knows to turn against him. However, looking back at the past 18 months of Bryant’s life, it seems rather ludicrous for the media and public to continue to afflict him with such harsh criticism. This ever-increasing pressure and critique of the Laker star has even gone so far as for me (and maybe you at the end of this piece) to question if this is all actually a devious attempt by the league to gain further popularity. Before clicking over to another website, at least hear me out.

Still the Best? Kobe dropped 36 pts, 10 rebs and 14 asts last Friday

Drafted out of high school, we had plenty of reason to assume that 19 year-old Kobe Bryant was a good kid. He came not only from a respectable background (a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia) but also under the guidance of his father Joe, an ex-NBA player. He seemed like the perfect candidate to take the torch from Michael Jordan and become the next player who never ceased to amaze us. He had that same swagger; the same look where you knew that on his best night no one could stop him, not even M.J. In Kobe, NBA fans had a lot to look forward to and better still, he was playing in Los Angeles where it would be impossible for him to shy away from the limelight. But, three championships later and right around the time he was beginning to show his true promise, the unthinkable happened. On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee, an event that shocked the entire sports world. In the few short days following the accusations, Kobe would lose not only the majority of his endorsements, but more importantly, the trust of his wife and his admirable reputation amongst the fans and media. Often times these situations have a way of healing themselves and eventually even turning full circle. Unfortunately for Kobe, things have just gotten worse. The unbearable pressure has reached such a high level that we must question how Kobe has managed to deal with all of it and further, whether the majority of it is actually even real. Take a look at the people and circumstances weighing down upon Bryant over the past year and a half (excluding the sexual assault charges). Several aspects just don’t make sense.

Phil Jackson

As we all know, upon losing to the Detroit Pistons in last year’s Finals, Coach Phil Jackson resigned (or was fired according to Shaq) from the Lakers. Shortly after, he came out with his book, "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul," detailing the various ups and downs of his final season in LA and most intriguingly, his relationship with Kobe Bryant. Jackson had a wonderful relationship with Jordan and Pippen in Chicago and everything always seemed to be fine in LA until that is, the team starting losing. Over the course of Jackson’s five-year tenure as Laker coach, the media provided us with a pretty good sense that things weren’t always running perfectly smoothly, but good enough to remain consistent among the league’s elite. However, harsh statements in his book (particularly aimed at Bryant) from the usually mundane Jackson were highly unexpected. He was quoted as telling Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak in reference to Bryant: "I won't coach this team next year if he is still here. He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid." So, Phil Jackson could win nine NBA Championships with two different teams yet he could not prevent losing control of a 24-year-old kid? If things became that bad during the season, why not suspend him? And in the end, wouldn’t Kupchak rather keep Jackson and O’Neal rather than a cancer like Kobe? Bryant responded to Jackson’s opinions with: "He's just trying to sell books. I'll just leave it at that." It is conceivable that this was an attempt by Jackson to sell more copies for as we all know, nothing sells better than drama. On top of this, it is also hard to believe that one player was able to become such a cancer, especially while facing sexual assault charges. Did Kobe have time to make more enemies? Did he really want to intensify his distractions? The basketball court was his safe ground, the only place where he was too good to be criticized. Even if it was entirely true how difficult it was to work with Bryant, Jackson should have just taken Shaq with him to another team and went on winning championships. Doesn’t that make more sense?

Shaquille O’Neal

A year after that regrettable night in Eagle, Colorado, Kobe Bryant found himself lost. Not only was he a free agent deciding between multiple offers, but his partner in crime on the basketball court had now transformed into his enemy. The first mistake Bryant made in harming an already tainted relationship with Shaquille O’Neal came during the interrogation process. Bryant spoke of O’Neal paying off women with ‘hush money’ in order to keep their private encounters from leaking out to the public. Maybe Bryant thought his statements would never be released, but nevertheless, how was this helping him in any way? What was he thinking? Why damage the spotless reputation of a teammate and superstar without any self-benefit? Would Jordan do that to Pippen? Malone to Stockton? Unsurprisingly, this was the first foot out the door for O’Neal. It is reasonable to assume that his assertion that Kobe forced him out of LA stemmed directly from this incident. It is in my opinion that instead of focussing directly upon Bryant’s statements in court, Shaq simply decided that he was going to do his best to damage Bryant’s reputation forever. So far, so good.
Note: their match-up on Christmas Day in LA just got a bit more interesting yesterday. Shaq was quoted as saying: "If you've got a Corvette that runs into a brick wall, you know what's gonna happen. He's a Corvette. I'm a brick wall. So you know what's gonna happen." Now Shaq’s always saying crazy things that make very little sense, but this is just stupid. If you do plan on being physical with Bryant, why let the media know beforehand? I’ll tell you why; it puts more people in front of their televisions this Saturday. Keep this theory in mind.

Reputation Amongst Fans

As fans, we are quick to criticize athletes as soon as they make a flaw in judgement. We saw it with players such as Ron Artest, Ricky Williams, Terrell Owens, Latrell Sprewell and now more than ever, with Kobe Bryant. Sure, Bryant made the regrettable decision of committing adultery and we frown upon him for ‘he should know better.’ The thing is, we don’t know anything about Kobe’s life. Can you imagine how many beautiful women throw themselves at him every single day? Do you think you would have the will power if you were one of the most popular basketball players in the NBA? The thing is, it’s so easy for the public to criticize because they don’t have to thoroughly examine the situation. They don’t have to think about if they were in Kobe’s shoes or what kind of pressure he faces on a daily basis. We constantly resort back to the fact that these guys make far too much money to make such terrible mistakes, which is true. But what we forget is that though they are millionaires, they remain human at the same time. I’m not condoning Kobe’s actions in any way, just saying that the public loves to hate without covering all the bases. He never gave us any reason to doubt his intentions before this incident, and while it is appropriate to question them now, absolutely despising the man is a bit much. Everyone deserves a second chance, but there’s something that won’t let us forgive Bryant just yet. Which leads me to…

Reputation Amongst Media

For 18 months, the media has been Bryant’s most steady and irritating critic. This season they got their ultimate wish in pairing their villain in an ongoing saga with the apparent good guy (Shaq). Proof: both Kobe interviews last week were followed abruptly with discussions with O’Neal to gain his up-to-the-minute perspectives on his former Laker teammate. The media has and will continue to push Bryant and O’Neal in opposite corners in order to spice up the drama of their Christmas Day match-up. The media loves to hate the villain and loves to love the good guy and they want nothing more than for the public to feel the same way. On a day-to-day basis, columnists continue to bash Bryant, a perfect example coming last Friday in an ESPN.com article by Jason Whitlock, check it out:


Now you can see first hand how ignorant the media has been at times in dealing with Kobe Bryant. Whitlock’s attempts at humor (at the expense of Bryant’s credibility) not only fail to get his point across but also allow us to see how average (at-best) a sports writer he truly is. Right off the bat, I could tell this was going to be a ridiculous article. First of all, it’s titled "Dear Kobe" and is a letter condemning Bryant on all his faults of the past year. Here’s how it begins:

"Hey, buddy. How ya doing? My name is Jason Whitlock. I'm a 37-year-old sports fan and sports writer. We've never formally met; and, to be quite honest, I've never really liked you. I'm a Shaq guy. The Big Diesel just always seemed more real than you. I didn't like the way you treated Shaq. Yes, he could be a bit lazy, and he should've reported to camp in better shape. But Shaq is a good guy; and had you shown him the proper respect, he would've given you the respect you wanted."

So basically Whitlock’s whole premise behind this article (Page 3 I might add) is due to his dislike for Bryant. He even goes on to say that Vanessa Bryant actually lured Karl Malone into hitting on her in a ploy to get back at her husband. Is this guy serious? He’s right though, we should really trust the opinions of a 300 lbs. writer from Missouri about what it’s like to deal with popularity and women falling all over you. Yet another example of the media pushing hard to keep Kobe Bryant looking as bad as possible.

Now, I bet you’re dying to know where I’m going with all this, so here goes. Before I get to my opinions, let me forewarn you that they may leave you in utter shock and maybe even prompt you to post a comment (down below). Are you ready? I actually don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think this whole saga is a ploy by the NBA to gain popularity. Think about it, MJ retired for the 8th time, the Lakers won their 3 Championships, everyone got bored, and it was time for Commissioner David Stern and the NBA to spice things up. With Kobe’s reputation already shot, why not turn him into the league’s villain and work from there? Here’s how the rest of the ‘plan’ has taken form:

1) Phil Jackson, the best coach of the last two decades, claims to be fed up with the team (particularly Bryant) and resigns right after the Lakers provide him with his first NBA Finals loss. He then comes out with his book, makes his money, makes Kobe look even worse, and further builds the hostility between Bryant and O’Neal.

2) Then, Shaq, the most valuable and perhaps the most popular player in the league, is traded to the Eastern Conference where he vows to regain MVP form and lead his new Miami Heat team to the Finals.

3) Later, both Jackson and O’Neal claim that Kupchak sided with Kobe, who wanted his former coach and teammate out of the picture. Bryant becomes even more of a bad guy, if that is even possible.

4) The season begins with Kobe and Shaq on opposite coasts, in opposite leagues and in opposite frames of mind. The media hounds Bryant throughout the preseason and into the regular season and make it clear he is the NBA villain.

5) To throw more fuel on the fire, the media stages the whole Kobe and his "best friend" from a year ago, Karl Malone, saga. The strife between the two leads to Malone ultimately ruling out a return to LA.

6) To makes matter EVEN WORSE, a week later Kobe claims that Malone hit on his wife and some even go as far to say that Vanessa made it all happen to get back at her husband for cheating.

7) This leads us up to coming weeks, when first, we get to see Shaq-Kobe I on Christmas Day of all days and then, by mid-January (at the latest), the "Mailman" will come back into the picture, eventually deciding on the black and red of the Miami Heat.

Not so far fetched after all, huh? Want even more proof? Open your Sports Illustrated this week and you’ll see a spread advertising the Christmas Day game between the Lakers and Heat. While the fans love to hate Kobe, they also cannot resist watching him on December 25 for our love for the drama will always overwhelm our opinions. Face it, in this day in age, we need our drama, even in the NBA. Sure Kobe screwed up, but honestly, many superstars have. Think about it, Magic Johnson didn’t get hounded for cheating on his wife simply because in the process, he contracted HIV. Instead, we felt bad for him with his life potentially at risk. We ignored the adultery aspect of the whole affair because one of the greatest and most popular players was sick, sick enough to be forced to leave the game. So was it right to condone Magic’s actions because of his illness? We forgave him because he got HIV, but wasn’t that his fault for cheating in the first place? If we can condone the actions of Magic, why can’t we forgive Kobe? The reason is that the media simply won’t allow us to. They have always had the power to influence our feelings and far too often their opinions become so ingrained into our minds that we start to believe them as our own. When the NBA is pushing so hard for Kobe to be the bad guy, he really has no chance to ever gain back his credibility. Will there ever come a day when we can forgive or Bryant? Or better yet, will the media (or the league) ever allow us to do so? Stay tuned.


At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ant, your media critique is spot-on. Simply excellent, and it needs to be said more often. Unfortunately, you've gotten a LOT of facts wrong. For instance, Kobe made his "hush money" comment immediately after being pulled in for questioning. There never WAS a trial. There's a big difference, one of them being that a person suddenly pulled in for police interrogation regarding a rape (of a white woman, no less) is especially likely to be unprepared, frightened, and panicky.

It's not the NBA that is organizing this whole "scheme." It's the media. They try to do this ALL the time, as a way of selling papers/getting ratings. The NBA knows that a lot of people will read this news or tune into Sportcenter and decide that they've had it with the NBA and will never watch or go to a game again. The media knows that those same people, having rejected the NBA, will still be hyper-likely to read and hear about the players' scandals in the morning paper and Sportcenter and radio talk shows.

Look what the media is trying to do right now to Chad Pennington. Pretty much everything he said was true, thoughtful, and respectful. But the media doesn't care. The media believes, perhaps correctly, that by blowing this whole conflict up it is more likely to get ratings and sell papers, DESPITE the fact that it makes the media look absolutely ridiculous, callous, and comically unaware of the irony that permeates this particular scandal. Basically, the media (and certainly not just the sports media) is everyday increasingly trading in competence and integrity for whatever it takes to sell more papers. Indeed, that's exactly what Pennington's point was. That the media doesn't care is a shame, and makes the world a more ignorant, insensitive place for all mankind.

Kobe 's just, what, 26 years old? If Kobe wasn't clearly such a selfish jerk, something that has always shone through the media's spin (whether positive or negative), I might really feel some pity for him. There is no way that he can withstand what the media is constantly throwing at him; he's so overmatched that his desperate attempts to control media spin have for the most part only made things worse. But I don't feel half as sorry for him as I do for sports fans who "get" what's happening here, and feel more and more helpless trying to receive real, objective news and participate in intelligent analysis so they can better enjoy being fans of the game itself. Media coverage of the election, the Peterson trial, the Kobe scandals, ROn Artest, basically everything, is at a point where basically the media is profiting handsomely financially at the expense of the health of our nation and society. It's getting to the point that watching Sportcenter can only make you dumber and more of an asshole, and that's a real shame.

Good luck with the rest of your picks this week.

Gawker out.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Anthony Peretore said...

Thank you Matt for reading the article and providing your constructive criticism. However, you said I had "ALOT of my facts wrong" yet you only name one. Your OPINION that this is the media's plot against Kobe is just that, your opinion. It is not a fact as it has not been proven. My hypothesis is that the league is supporting this saga for the money they see will be much more substantial than any media post. I always appreciate your feedback but trying to make me look like an ass and only coming up with one incorrect statement really does neither of us good. Next time you have something to say, email it and save us both the embaressment.


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