Me and the devil
In two hundred years, they will be able to tell you the exact moment at which I swore allegiance to Kobe Bryant. It happened in early 2003, when Kobe was on a Shaq-less scoring tear of historic proportions; I myself was spending a lot of time in New York, copping yay at wholesale prices and fucking a girl with a lazy eye. One night I was at a bar with too many chairs, celebrating the birthday of a total stranger and watching the Lakers/Rockets game out of the corner of my one green eye. I got sick of whatever else was going on, and went to stand by the television with an older black man wearing headphones.
I don’t remember what Kobe did (other than score a lot), and I don’t know why this night was different from all others that month (an obvious choice would have been one of his assaults on the hapless Nuggets, which provided ninety-percent of that season’s Bryant highlights). But then and there, it dawned on me that resisting was a waste—Kobe was simply too good not to jock. Pre-rape Kobe was aloof and smug, but hardly evil. And, as I told the guy in the headphones repeatedly, at some point, as a fan of the greatest game on the planet, you were screwing yourself if you refused to appreciate The Next Jordan. He nodded, thanked me, and turned his headphones up. I had a new lease on life and an incredible urge to fuck someone whose eyes worked and kill.
It got to the point where I didn’t only stand in awe of Kobe—pre-rape, I was sympathetic. Who among us isn’t a self-absorbed, suspicious, anti-social prick at heart? Even after the arrest, I tried to keep it positive, sketching out how it could have been an honest mistake. The more dirt came out, though, the harder it became to keep up my newfound investment in Kobe the man; eventually, I was just pissed that basketball (read: me) would have to go without him if his violent world of lawyers couldn’t keep him out of jail.
That’s how sick—and otherworldly—Kobe was two years ago. He had flashes last season, but the Lakers weren’t right on the court, and the drama with Shaq and Phil distracted conditional Kobe fans like myself (he’s not the kind of player you can root for when he’s down). Then came the summer of 2004, which in retrospect hurt his image more than the arrest, and the awful realization that Kobe’s Lakers would be no land of plenty. Kobe and Odom could spank anyone in the league in a game of two-on-two (still my favorite combo in NBA Street), but watching them for real was going to be as frustrating and depressing as any Eastern Conference team could ever hope to be.
And then there’s Lebron. Everybody loves Lebron; he also, unlike Kobe, never looks like he’s fucking around or floundering. The Cavs aren’t necessarily any more talented, or better-coached, than the Lakers, but Bron plays smart and efficiently, like Phil was whispering in his ear. If Kobe is a coach killer, Lebron could make any coach look twice as effective as they deserve to be. That and the worst he’s been accused of is taking a free throwback and smiling a lot.
But has Kobe Bryant fallen so far, and the world forgotten so much, that we’re taking the “Kobe theory” seriously? The Ewing theory, which the mighty Bill Simmons has never forgotten as much as I’ve never forgotten it, made sense at the time; Ewing was aging, slow, and a dinosaur in a conference that had no centers who required his special, special gifts. Going small meant a faster, more dynamic Knicks team, opening up the floor and changing the complexion of the offense. Kobe, though, is a 6’6” off-guard on a team that, as far as I can tell, is made up of Lamar Odom and a bunch of average-sized, decently athletic 2’s and 3’s. You don’t switch styles by taking away Kobe, and while Kobe may not be the easiest guy to play with, there’s no way that this year’s Lakers wouldn’t die to have 2003 Kobe on the court with them.
Someone grouchy and stupid might come back at me with the “Vince Carter theory,” since Toronto always seemed to go on a run when Vince was out. That might work for last year’s Raptors—if you actually believe that anyone in the East gave a fuck until Lebron and Shaq shifted the balance of power. And this year’s Raptors had Bosh waiting in the wings, an basketball dragon who’s probably worth more to a team now than Vince has been since he invented “jumper’s knee.”
The preceding paragraph also assumes that Carter even belongs in the same sentence with Kobe. Vince made his rep in a dunk contest.
Next time you’re lucky enough to hear Greg Anthony and Marc Stein debating the “Kobe theory,” stop yourself and think about 2003 Kobe. I’m not saying Kobe is (that) brilliant this season, but it's not like he's lost the ability to be that player. Having Phil on the bench helped, but there's no reason to believe he’ll never get back to that level, or that calling him Jordan 2 was a mistake. Mark my word, he’s got plenty of time and talent to burn—if it was all a dream, it never would have happened in the first place.