My Sportsman: Kobe Bryant
Even if you don't like his persona, Kobe Bryant demands respect as a hoopster
Bryant's determination may contradict the traditional definition of "Sportsman"
The NBA Finals MVP has remained unapologetic for his fierce competitive streak
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
This nomination is a little different. It's not about starting a sustainable soybean farm for needy kids in Zimbabwe, or finishing a marathon with one leg (and only two toes on the one foot!) or inspiring an [insert-calamity]-ravaged community with a sublime performance that just begs to be mythologized.
No, this nomination is about winning and competing and wanting it so bad that it's almost inappropriate. It's about doing whatever it takes, yelling at whomever it takes and preparing whenever it takes. This nomination is about Kobe Bryant.
Sure, you may not like the guy -- your prerogative -- but it's impossible not to respect him as a basketball player. Not only did he win his fourth ring in June -- more than Michael Jordan had at the same age, in case anyone was counting -- but he did so in un-Kobe-like fashion: by passing the ball. If you recall, the Lakers playoff run hinged on the decision by Bryant, midway through the semifinal series against the Nuggets, to start acknowledging not only that he had teammates, but that they may be of some use to him (most strikingly in his near-flawless performance in the Game 6 clincher). In the Finals, Bryant not only averaged 32.4 points per game, but also led all players in assists by nearly a 2-to-1 margin (he was the first player since MJ to average 30 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists for a title team). All the while, Bryant played defense with frightening intensity. I still remember how he wildly boxed out the taller, longer Magic forward Rashard Lewis for a crucial rebound, eyes bugged out and teeth bared, like a terrier trying to shake loose its leash.
Granted, none of this makes Kobe a "sportsman" in the traditional sense of the word -- those guys don't usually publicly chew out teammates (as Bryant did to Lakers center Andrew Bynum during the Finals, yelling, "Get your head in the f---king game!") or elbow opponents in the trachea (as Kobe did to Ron Artest in the Rockets series, sending Artest tearing around the court, like Jimmy Valvano after that N.C. State victory, looking for a ref or a coach or someone, anyone who would hear his complaint).
But if we define the term instead as encompassing passion and intensity and a profound, abiding love for the game, then there is no more deserving candidate, for Bryant possesses that rarest of qualities: pure, uncut, 100 percent organic, free trade, 200 proof desire. In True Blood, the HBO show, one drop of vampire blood makes mortals start acting like they're in their seventh hour of a Phish concert. Well, what do you think would happen if Derrick Coleman or Eddy Curry had been injected with a little Kobe blood? I'll tell you what would have happened -- Coleman would have a fistful of rings and Shaq would be the second-best center of the last seven years.
Even better, Kobe never apologizes for his desire, and why should he? Last year, while working on a book, I asked Bryant if he ever felt bad about obliterating teammates and friends during practice or one-on-one games, as he is wont to do. "Nope, not at all," he said. "To me, I enjoy doing it. I enjoy beating guys and beating them and beating them. If you're going to beat somebody, you have to beat them to a pulp. To see what happens, to see what they're made of."
Now imagine if all NBA players took this approach to the game. Imagine if they all -- if we all -- took the game as seriously as Kobe. Sure, things might get a tad contentious, but there would be no such thing as a boring midseason game, no such thing as garbage time. Hell, there might not be such a thing as the "Los Angeles Clippers" or the "Memphis Grizzlies."
So for all this -- for working out at the team hotel at seven in the morning after a Finals win, for providing the league with both its greatest hero and villain, for playing each fourth quarter as if the fate of the free world depended on every fadeaway jumper, for one of the most impressive postseasons in NBA history -- Kobe Bryant should be Sportsman of the Year. And, knowing Kobe, he probably agrees.