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Lee Jenkins
June 25, 2009
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June 25, 2009

The Prince Of The City


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HE IS OFTEN THE FIRST PERSON YOU SEE WHEN you land at LAX, the one who watches over you when you lie out on Venice Beach, when you cruise Hollywood Boulevard. He is the Southland's unofficial greeter, its one legitimate reality star, glowering down from signs and billboards across the city with his familiar fourth-quarter glare. ¶ To tourists and transplants, the look is pure menace. But to those in Los Angeles who spent years in a state of high anxiety, wondering if and when he might blow town, it is a constant source of reassurance. Kobe Bryant still lives among us, and when the home team is down a point with two minutes left in the fourth, he will purse his lips and narrow his gaze, just like he does on those billboards. He will elevate over three defenders, contort his body 180 degrees in the air, lean back as if reclining in an easy chair and nail that shot even if he's got somebody's fingernails in his eyeballs.

He has been criticized for shooting too much and not shooting enough, for saying too much and not saying enough, for being too intense and too aloof at the same time. When he scored 81 points in a game, he was a ball hog. When he scored one point in the second half of a playoff game, he was in a sulk. When he begged the Lakers to add talent, he was too candid. When he starred in a documentary by Spike Lee, he was not candid enough. Outside of Mike Tyson and Barry Bonds, it is hard to find an athlete who has been subjected to more armchair psychoanalysis, which is a shame because it is also hard to find an athlete who is more aesthetically entertaining to sit back and watch.

He seems to possess all the attributes we prize in a basketball player: grace, balance, toughness, intellect, killer instinct, a sense of occasion, a commitment to defense, and, of course, an otherworldly ability to put the ball in the hole. Compared with LeBron James, he looks almost slight, like a wide receiver next to a linebacker. He is best appreciated not in the glimmer of a playoff series but in the grind of a regular season. There is much I like about living in Los Angeles—the dimly lit lounges that never have a line, the taco shops that stay open late, the way the hills look at dusk—but nothing more than the lazy nights in midwinter when Bryant is on local television, against Memphis or Charlotte, throwing around his body like it's the Finals.

Los Angeles is filled with celebrities of every type who are beloved around the world, but none are more beloved within the city's borders than Bryant. He came here from high school, threw up three air balls in a playoff game at Utah, grew a mini Afro, won a trio of titles and could do no wrong, though there was plenty he would do wrong. Bryant is a polarizing figure nationally, a unifying force locally. L.A. is easy to typecast as a divided metropolis: Trojans vs. Bruins, Dodgers vs. Angels, those who lunch at Mr. Chow and those who don't. But the artistic merit of a Bryant reverse layup is generally agreed upon.

The Lakers have now won 15 NBA championships, and most of them were about big men (Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq), dynasties ('50s, '80s, '00s) and one stubborn nemesis (Celtics). This title is all Kobe. It reasserts his position as the league's premier player—LeBron, you can wait a few more minutes—and inches him closer to the Jordan stratosphere. It puts to rest the silly notion that Bryant could not win without Shaquille O'Neal, or that the Lakers should have chosen O'Neal over Bryant five years ago.

Lakers fans will savor this banner, not because they waited a particularly long time for it, but because of the sagas Bryant made them endure to get it—his legal troubles in Colorado, his feud with O'Neal, his flirtation with the Clippers, his request to be traded, his casual suggestion that he might opt out of his contract and go play in Europe. But Los Angeles makes allowances for the exceptionally talented, and, eventually, each threat only strengthened the tie between city and star.

He is now forever part of the L.A. fabric, a large and colorful tapestry in which a riveting performer can find a home. When my son was born last year in Santa Monica, on the day the Lakers played Game 1 of the Finals against Boston, I lifted him up to the television set in our hospital room, against doctor's orders. I wanted his first image of the outside world to be spectacular. In that moment, I could think of nothing better than a Kobe Bryant jumper.