Heart of a pet
Today I write with a heavy heart. In less than twenty-four hours, your very own Bethlehem Shoals will be grappling with either his first brush with a family Christmas or the possible loss of his favorite cat this side of Tarantula. Yet FreeDarko exists not to bare to you what goes on inside my soul but to, as much as possible, show that feelings about the NBA are people, too.
Robbed of my priceless Chinese and a movie (cliché, maybe, but it’s my own so I call it ritual), and, as any Jew over twelve without children should, placing no stock in the Festival of Lights, to me Christmas is all about basketball. Two years ago, I sat alone in my apartment exulting as LeBron and T-Mac shot the fucking lights out on a national stage. And last season, like everyone else on the planet, I eagerly anticipated Shaq/Kobe more for the pre- and post-game interactions than the game itself. Now, despite finding myself a few ringer prayers away from a fantasy football title, I find myself again fixated on Kobe/Shaq, wondering if I’m not about to witness short-form history in the making.
Like the last go-round, the final score should be an afterthought. The kid with the Troubled Smile can drop a hundred, and still there’s no way that Shaq, Wade, and the reform school of former All-Star’s that the Heat copped over the summer can not walk away with a decisive victory. I also know full well that nothing that happens at mid-court can warm over the shattered romance that is Big Daddy and his first, and still finest, Robin (the miscast, Chris O’Donnell-ish one); despite Kobe having professed last week that he’d like things to be better, he fully admits, and I think we all know, that for them it’s a done deal. They’ll be civil at some Lakers ceremonies when Shaq retires, even cordial at the Hall of Fame banquets. For now, though, they’re more concerned with their respective teams seasons—the rare case where the “I’m just trying to get us into the playoffs” isn’t just a tossed-off reflex—than the cosmic dilemma that is Shaq and Kobe, Kobe and Shaq.
Their relationship, though, has never really been about them as individuals, or even the fate of the Lakers. It’s been a media circus that gained enough traction to survive as folk legend. I’m tempted to say that it’s here, and not in any culture wars showdown involving Iverson, the dress code, or Big Ron, that fans have staked out truly original territory of this-and-that dichotomy in today’s Association. Because while these other conflicts are for the most part pantomimes of American society’s daily toils, Kobe/Shaq really, truly originates in sport as we know it.
The battle lines are all too familiar at this point. Shaq: beloved by all, consummate gentleman, media darling, Bunyan-like folk hero, history being written from the minute he entered the league, laughing with us through his troubles; Kobe: mysterious, awkward, uncomfortably deliberate, stalking greatness with a predatory zeal, so frightening in his perfection that it makes us feel safe when he stumbles. Shaq, unambiguous, candid, making his own way through the game; Kobe, murky, derivative, so hopelessly referential that you worry it’s a crutch. That the world should relate more readily to Goliath than a middle-class kid who worked his ass off to earn his place among the sport’s fine tyrants is a testament to just how off-putting his whole steez can be.
I’m on record, more times over than the sky can hold, as being a Kobe guy. He’s the tragic figure, anti-hero, and mighty parable that, as someone who spent most of high school fighting my way through Russian novels, I’m pretty much predisposed to root for. And while I like Shaq as much as the next guy, he seems like someone I’m far more interested in telling my grandseed about than I am pulling for in the here and now. Never mind the night and day differences in what they do on the court; to me, Kobe is a far more compelling, and thus sympathetic, figure than the Big Bob Hope.
The problem is, siding with Kobe wears a person out. It’s not just that it can get uncomfortable, like when Bryant’s endless politicizing rings hollow, his play borders on flippant, and, of course, when he gets away with sexual assault. More that I get the feeling that I’ve taken an indefensible position and have the whole world not just against me, but either embarrassed by or smugly dismissive of me. See, Kobe’s not like Iverson—there’s no glory in his struggles, no real rebellious cause. He’s an asshole, plain and simple, one whose numerous shortcomings as a person shouldn’t have to come with his unshakable basketball genius. Sometimes I worry that I’m not actually supporting Kobe, but harping on the parts of him that, were he to ever grow up, he’d leave behind faster than you can say “Sheed on the Blazers.”
But that might be exactly why I’m so stuck on Kobe—for better or worse, I know that there’s no separating the greatness from the pettiness, the sublime from the groan-inducing, the rat from the falcon. I like a good anthem as much as the next man, and I’d put lo-fi, gutter-level intensity in that same category. With Kobe, though, it’s exactly the mundane and seemingly superfluous parts of him that work to make him mighty, threaten even to swallow the good stuff alive. Shaq doesn’t have this problem, since from day one he’s been a legend in the making, and a totally one-sided one at that. Ask me to choose between the voluminously sacred and the naggingly profane, though, and I’ll have an answer for you before you even tell me why you’re asking.