I’m not someone to dwell overmuch on the personal flaws of artists, athletes, politicians, etc. I’m not asking them to be my friend; I’m just asking them to do a particular job. We do not, in general, hold our plumbers to the same standards and rightfully so. For all that, I can’t help but note the controversy over Kobe Bryant’s terrible language towards a referee, because it’s an interesting addition to the Kobe story.
The Kobe story is a perfect example of our collective ability to willfully forget what we’d prefer not to consider. Off the court, we’ve all forgotten that Kobe is, in fact, a massive jerk. A productive massive jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. We tend to say in these situations that this is the power of celebrity, but our collective memory is kind of strange: some things it will never, ever forget no matter what—a certain scandal will be one of the first lines in Clinton’s obituary, for example—and some things it forgets easily as if they’d never happened.
The forgetting about Kobe’s off-the-court behavior is congruent with our general decision to not even begin to engage in criticism of his on-court game. To listen to fans and pundits talk about him, Kobe is everything we’d like to admire about playing basketball well: the game is nearly perfect and his will and personal attributes are nearly so. He works incredibly hard and appreciates the history of the game. Much of the story is true, but it’s so one-sided that it makes him into an elementary school saint, like what kids learn about Abraham Lincoln or something. Kobe does have extraordinary will and is an extraordinarily hard worker, and those qualities are very valuable. Kobe is also, at base, selfish. Kobe is the grown-up version of the kid who will take the ball and go home if the game is not played his way, so he can prove something: winning is part of it, but Kobe has to win his way. This translates into playing as a monomaniacal scorer who barely has time for passing; unfortunately many of the dominant point guards who have since gotten into the league seem to have imitated his style of play. Kobe plays best when people’s attention is on him: his off-the-ball work on both sides of the ball is lacking; but when he’s on the ball either on offense or defense he’s exceptional. He wouldn’t prove anything to most people by doing well off-the-ball, would he? They don’t notice. The Lakers during this run they’ve had could’ve been much better than they were had Kobe consistently passed to the big men and, my god, gotten Derek Fisher to stop shooting stupid shots (speaking of never even bothering to consider negative facts about people: how is it that Derek Fisher regularly receives praise so overdone that you wonder when we were transported to a parody dictatorship?).
Every so often you hear stories about people who assemble, say, the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks or something. There’s whimsy in it; take that out and you just see someone who did something impressive in a willfully difficult fashion. That’s Kobe’s career: he possesses every ability and trait to do things efficiently and effectively but chose to do things in a difficult way—his way.
(by the way—his way will, after much artificial frustration in which he gets credit for extricating the Lakers from a problem he might well have created, probably win. Someone will call Pau Gasol soft, many times.)