Reasonable Doubt: Kobe Bryant

Darius Soriano —  August 30, 2011

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site,Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been doing excellent work at FB&G and continues those efforts today . You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

Shawn Carter has been known to step inside the booth and bang out classic hits despite never writing down his rhymes. Jay-Z’s gift though is his ability to turn words into short movies that slowly but surely develop themselves in the fabric of our minds as we listen to his songs. Whether talking about his father in Moment of Clarity or putting his emotions out there in Song Cry; there are few entertainers that can match the Jigga Man.

Much like Jay-Z, Kobe Bryant has excelled at his craft for over a decade and continues to be one of the best in his field. He routinely does things on the basketball court that we are not sure we have ever seen before. His mastery of footwork, pump fakes, angles as well as his unmatched scoring creativity make him one of the best players today and easily an NBA legend. And yet, throughout the course of his career, he has been met with criticism, doubt and blame.

For years, basketball fans have showed a great deal of antipathy towards Bryant, for reasons that were once unclear. However, after reading Roland Lazenby’s Mad Game, one can obtain a greater understanding of his trials and tribulations; and how people on the outside looking in viewed them and consequently, viewed him.

The Lakers star joined the NBA at an age where most people are getting ready for their freshmen classes in college. Given his youth, Kobe kept to himself and rarely if ever communicated with teammates. The idea was that he wanted to accomplish his goals and did not trust people from outside of his inner circle; because they could potentially steer him away from his objectives (he wanted to be the greatest player ever).

Despite his isolation and failure to communicate with his teammates, Kobe was still a truly gifted NBA player at an early age. He found ways to consistently create shots in practice and convert them at a decent rate.

His rookie season saw him get sporadic playing time because he played behind seasoned and talented players such as Eddie Jones, Rick Fox and Nick Van Exel (Kobe played some back up point guard early in his career). On the rare occasions that Bryant got into games, he hit the court exclusively looking to score. The young star in the making had always been a scorer; however Kobe did it in ways that often disrupted the offense.

Then Lakers coach Del Harris failed to implement a solid system on offense and had very lax practices. The end result was that far too often the ball would go into Shaquille O’Neal while the other players just stood there watching him, failing to move without the ball. Furthermore, the lack of attention to detail in practice meant that the Lakers defeated teams with their talent as opposed to their execution.

Tex Winter offered this point to Lazenby prior to joining the Lakers coaching staff:

“I don’t think he’s selfish at all. The impression I get with him is his indecision, because they don’t seem to have a system, other than space the floor and move the ball inside to Shaq. I asked him if they had an identifiable system of play and he said he didn’t think so.”

This explains why Los Angeles often fell at the hands of experienced teams in the playoffs such as the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs.

Harris’ inability to properly coach the Lakers meant that Kobe could not commit to him. Thus, when Harris called for adjustments from his young guard, he rarely acquiesced. Further exacerbating the issue his following season, when the Lakers met with the Bulls and Kobe had a chance to play against Michael Jordan; MJ took the youngster aside and offered him this piece of advice: “You gotta stay aggressive”. Kobe took those words to heart; he took them to mean that his Airness understood what he was going through and wanted him to remain confident in his abilities.

If things had been difficult for Kobe Bryant then, they were going to become increasingly hard for him after the 1998 NBA All-Star Game. The rising star had been voted as a starter and went on to dazzle those in attendance. His confidence had reached a new level and it was obvious by his body language.

Several had interpreted Kobe’s silence with his teammates as a sign of arrogance. They thought that this kid figured he was so much better than all of them that talking with them was beneath him. Or so they thought. But then this new Kobe came out and started trash talking with players and teammates who had routinely done the same to him.

This was par for the course in the NBA, but the Lakers players and coaching staff felt as though they needed to rein him in. His minutes were squeezed a bit and all of a sudden Bryant started to realize that he was not getting the ball as much out in transition. He thought they were out to humble him.

These issues altogether led to the purple and gold becoming a less cohesive team. Consequently they had to hold a few team meetings to air out their grievances but the truth is that the players always danced around the topic. Kobe was playing a brand of basketball conducive to making himself look good but was hurting the team in the process; however no one ever said it. The meetings were always about avoiding the temptation of playing selfishly and trying to help out each other, but it was never explicitly stated that Kobe was the problem.

Things took a turn for the worse with Shaquille O’Neal. By virtue of his presence, talent and enormous contract, he was the leader of the team. He attempted early in Kobe’s career to integrate him to the team but when that failed, he began telling management, players as well as the coaching staff that the biggest problem the team had was Bryant’s play. He would criticize him in the media and even asked for the team to trade him for Penny Hardaway.

But for all of his jabs and insults, Shaq never sought to understand the youngster or tried to guide him. In his opinion, his role was that of a leader, not a baby sitter. And the way he lead his ship was to turn everyone against Bryant. Things were bad to the point that during the 1999 lockout, O’Neal slapped Kobe Bryant during a two-on-two basketball session.

By the time Phil Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, the team was clearly talented enough to win an NBA title but it lacked discipline, continuity and chemistry. Jackson’s biggest role as a head coach would be to repair the relationship between O’Neal and Bryant.

But a funny thing happened when Phil Jackson and Tex Winter joined the Lakers: they realized that most players on the team (especially O’Neal) harbored ill feelings towards the play of Bryant. They could not appreciate Kobe for the talent he was; instead they kept seeing the young player that made countless mistakes in the past and that had a penchant for becoming trigger-happy. When the Lakers won, things went smoothly, but if they lost, it was Kobe’s fault. If Bryant took an ill-advised shot or committed a turnover, the whole team would get deflated given their history with him.

Derek Fisher had this to offer on the issue:

“The coaches voiced to us that they weren’t seeing the same things we were seeing when they watched film and when they watched what was going on. They didn’t see the same selfishness or one-on-one play that we saw. What I tried to tell the other guys is that this is our fourth year now. Me, Shaq, Robert [Horry], Rick [Fox], Travis [Knight], so we still had issues that we had dealt with before. It was kind of similar to a relationship between a man and a woman where you get upset with all of these things from the past that come up. That’s really where a lot of this stuff stemmed from. The coaches saw that a lot of this stuff would come in due time. But we were so impatient because we had dealt with it before.”

Thus, Jackson obtained video clips of Bryant’s play and showed them to the team in order for them to finally understand that their star guard was doing exactly what he was being asked to do. He made mistakes on the court occasionally, but he was still one of the best players in the league and he played like it.

Mind you, in order for the team to have any sense of normalcy and harmony, it was important for Jackson to create and cultivate a strong bond with the star center. At times, that meant that Kobe was left feeling like an outsider.

What made their dynamic so intriguing was the fact that O’Neal was clearly at the time the best player in the league, but he rarely worked at it. He would often use the season to get himself into shape, his poor conditioning led to injuries and did nothing to improve his game.

Kobe on the other hand practiced hard, was always looking to improve, played hurt and made sure he was one of the best-conditioned athletes in the league. And yet, Jackson always sided with O’Neal (which was obviously good strategy given his stature and how his mood affected the team’s).

And that’s what makes the relationship between fans and Kobe Bryant so fascinating. Here we have a hard working player that has rarely thrown a teammate under the bus, but he is still received amongst many as the basketball anti-Christ. One could even say that throughout his career he has always been the victim whenever conflicts arose and yet he managed to stay above it all. Perhaps, it’s time for the court of public opinion to let him walk, because whatever it was he was accused of, there seems to be at least some…

Reasonable doubt.

-J.M. Poulard

Darius Soriano

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32 responses to Reasonable Doubt: Kobe Bryant

  1. Great stuff,

  2. First impressions tend to stick – the way many fans and media view Bryant is a perfect example of that. And, then, just when many of that group were starting to appreciate him for his actual skills and work ethic, Colorado gave them (in their minds) an excuse to go back to the first impression.

  3. I think Kobe’s the absoluyte model for professionalism and maturity. If my GM told me that they were going to re-hire a guy who bashed me in his book, three words would have come out of my mouth: ” Trade Me Now!!!!!!” But Kobe didn’t. Instead he brushed off the past and decided instead to work with Phil Jackson to build a championship team. how many of us would say that we could do the same thing? Not many, I’m sure of it.

  4. Phenomenal piece. In many ways, our opinions on Kobe reflect a little about our types of fandom. For some (like me), work ethic and off-court dedication to the craft trumps all. Other fans like to be entertained, and Shaq did that well off the court. Some fans can separate on-court issues from off-court troubles, and some just can’t separate the player from the person. It’s interesting to think about.

    On a side note, I was watching old Magic games a while back, and man – I forgot just how damn good Penny Hardaway was pre-injury. Without the injuries, he could have reached a level very close to Kobe, IMO. One of the few players to really have the complete package.

  5. In Kobe’s rookie year, Rick Fox was not on the team.

  6. This a great article!

  7. I definitely feel that much of the Animosity directed @ Kobe in his younger years was do 2 his Admiration (most would say Intimidation) of Michael Jordan. Also, by stating that Magic was his Favorite Player growing up, while having all of his Mannerism and Style of play directly correlated 2 Jordan, he came across as being Phony & a Fake.

  8. I see that as Kobe being wise enough to know that even though his favorite player growing up as a Lakers fan was Magic, his own talents and skillset were more conducive to a game like Jordan’s. Unlike, say, Lebron, Kobe was always quite sure of his path as a basketball player. There is something to be said of not basing your identity on what others and the media want you to be. You can’t please everyone, as Lebron found out. Kobe made his Decision when he asked to be a Laker and not a Hornet.

  9. I appreciate Kobe Bryant a lot, and the article really puts things in perspective. But I have a question about Kobe never throwing his teammates under the bus. I have not read it in the police report, but according to other people when Kobe was being interrogated about the rape incident he said he should have just payed her “like Shaq always does.” Is this true?

  10. Kobe had four large problems coming into the NBA…

    1) He was the first guard to jump from high school and was therefore discounted.
    2) There were two very good guards in front of him on the Lakers.
    3) He came in with Shaq, meaning he was forced to compete with an outgoing, somewhat insecure, but very dominant force in the NBA.
    4) But the largest problem was that he came in with Jordan’s ESPN legend in full flower and with the media fully dedicated to continuing the Jordan legacy.

    Sure there were issues he brought, but they were somewhat dwarfed by the timing of his entry into the league.

  11. Nice article!

    I’m not a fan type A or type B. I just love the game and played myself in HS. To my knowledge of the game, that kid with an afro #8 caught my attention since his second season. Even during the 3-peat, I was one that thinks without Kobe there would be no 3-peat.

    Once that said, I’m amused to know that the players were siding with O’Neal, due to his “dominance” as a star (was just size).

    Time told us that that afro kid became one of the greatest bball player ever. Greater than Shaq? You bet! Greater than MJ? Well, Kobe had much better and skilled oponents to fight against than MJ. Besides, IMHO, MJ was never close to Magic and Bird, all Stern stuff.

    I feel honored to be able to see KB for so many years defending my P&G, sometimes live at Staples. I took my kid to see him live, to never forget what a great player looks like.

    Hail to Kobe Bean Bryant!

    Cheers.

  12. Nice piece.

  13. Great piece.

    I just watched games 1 and 2 of the WCF in 2001 against the Spurs. It was clear to me that Shaq was somewhat contained, esp against Duncan, in initiating 1v1 situations (moderate instead of deep post position). Shaq had runs in the fourth where he couldn’t get off good shots but had to go to spin/fall aways, whereas Kobe created in these runs and played crucial weakside defense to run their the Spurs’ three point specialists off the three point line while still closing off the lane. This was how we were able to double-team Duncan effectively, and he was killing us otherwise.

    I’m not saying Kobe was the MVP of that run, but during major stretches esp 4th quarters where he not only affected the game but carried the team when Shaq was largely ineffective.

  14. Great read, with lots of information to digest.

  15. What can’t be forgotten is that Kobe, unlike most players, came from a very affluent background and had lived in Italy. I am not so sure what his life in Italy was like, but I don’t think being a black kid in a predominantly white society is conducive to sociable behavior; and I doubt he’d have much in common with the rest of the players from the hoods or with single parents. Remember Jalen Rose and Grant Hill?

    This of course reinforces players’ belief that Kobe is arrogant, and it is not really surprising at all that things turned out the way they did. Had Beijing not happened, I don’t think Kobe would’ve been as accepted by his peers as he is now. Not that I get the feeling that he’s really ‘down’ with all the players in the league either.

    The most telling thing about him for me was not really Mad Game, but Spike’s film, Kobe Doin’ Work. You could really see how he and his teammates interacted, and while I believe Kobe could’ve benefited with better coaching and teammates, I think at best we’d be seeing another Deron Williams in terms of getting-along with teammates and coaching staff.

  16. Pau Gasol with 29 points and 7 rebounds. Looked pretty good in game against Poland in FIBA EuroBasket 2011

  17. 15,
    The difference is that 99 percent of people love Grant Hill. Kobe wasn’t amd isn’t liked because he isn’t a people person.

  18. I don’t revere Kobe’s game like I do Magic’s but for all of Kobe’s flaws in leadership and team basketball, he has in many ways been vindicated by his last two rings and Olympic gold.

    I think this article veered a little towards “Kobe apologist” but overall I appreciated it.

  19. Kobe would have been received the same way in the NBA even if he had entered the league at a different time with different teammates.

    The issue with Kobe is as fundamental as DNA. He is the greatest one on one player in history and in exchange for that he’s cursed with not possessing the gene to make players around him better.

    He just doesn’t do that. He never has and he never will and like it or not, that will be a considerable part of his legacy.

  20. 19,
    Kobe does not make players around him better? Ask Derek Fisher and Luke Walton. They have homes and cars for the sole reason of having Kobe play alongside them. Making players around you better is almost as simple as garnering double teams to give teammates around you shots. Up until last year Kobe was one of the best in the history ofthe NBA at doing just that.

  21. Good stuff. I’ve watched Kobe from his first game in purple and gold and in the ensuing years always sided with him over Shaq. O’Neal was the leader of the team but he always acted like a child; instead of trying to work with and accept Kobe, he threw tantrums. I fault Phil Jackson as well because while he needed to remain on Shaq’s good side, he didn’t have to treat Kobe like a red-headed stepchild in order to do that. Yet he did.

    I appreciated most that Kobe kept his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself until he couldn’t take it anymore and opened up to Jim Gray. He’s said himself that was his biggest mistake, responding to Shaq’s needling in the press. The truth has come out in the last few years. My faith in and appreciation of Kobe has never wavered.

  22. Funny how for a guy that doesn’t have the gene to make his teammates better, many of Kobe’s teammates have put up the best numbers of their career while playing with Kobe.

    Meanwhile Bron who supposedly is vastly superior in making teammates better has had teammates numbers be below their career averages consistently.

  23. 20 Aaron,

    I don’t think that making players around you better is just drawing double teams. Otherwise the Iversons mcgradys and carmelos would be considered great.

    Kobe said something to the effect of learning that making players around you better is a culture hangs that permeates practice and team building, from relationships to work ethic etc etc, not just about what happens on the court. He said it more elegantly and I thought it was very wise.

  24. great article although the Jay-Z comparison intro is a bit of a stretch for the sake of it

  25. Amen to this Article!!!!! I for one was disappointed on how Shaq conditioned himself during the regular season. If only Shaq treated the game with the same dedication as Kobe they could have won at least 5 rings together. And had Shaq accepted the fact that he is already growing old and needs to pass the “Alpha Male Tag” to Kobe who knows how many more rings they could have won together.

  26. Great article JM, really enjoyed reading it.

  27. I’ve gotta say, that JM’s writings on Kobe are as good as any I’ve read.

    Also, have to disagree with @19 (the other Dave, haha) – I’ve seen Kobe teaching others, especially younger players, so many times over the years. I simply don’t understand the notion that he doesn’t make others better but maybe that’s just me.

  28. Kobe is going to go down in history as one the most misunderstood players in NBA lore.

    Possibly the most misunderstood.

    “He ball hogs.” “He doesn’t make his teammates better.” “He made Shaq leave.” etc.

    The funny thing is that for all that is supposedly misunderstood, if one just looks at things with a clear mind or view, you can see the man is relentless in his quest to be the best, personally and teamwise.

    At first you could surmise it was to score and prove he was unstoppable in his early years. In this latter transitional and tail end of his career its more about teamwork, legacy, and rings.

    But never did I think he didn’t make his teammates better.

    Don’t forget, everyone pales in comparison compared to Magic’s “making teammates better ability”. Even Jordan does.

    I’m sure if Kobe wanted, he could lead the league in assists. But he is not a PG and that’s not the game that is geared to him or what the team needs most.

    An active Kobe = wins. A passive Kobe does not = wins.

    Bye.

  29. Great read…thanks, JM! I’ve often wondered how Kobe’s career would’ve turned out if he’d have attended Duke for 2(+) years. Assuming he did that and still came to the Lakers, would his integration into the team have gone more smoothly/effectively? Would Shaq and the others have been quicker to accept/respect the more polished, within-a-structured-offense type of game he’d have brought from Duke? Would he be a greater NBA player than he is?

    When the team broke up after the 2004 season, I definitely liked Shaq more, but I knew that keeping Kobe was the right choice for Dr. Buss to make. Knowing what I know now (i.e., the stuff that JM covers in this post), that choice seems all the better.

    As we enter the last, diminishing-skills stage of Kobe’s career, I’m beginning to get really nostalgic for all the great moments–big and small. He’s been so reliable for so long…he’ll leave such a huge vacuum. To all great things must come an end.

    One last thought…I’ve always measured Kobe by jaw-dropping moments: the number of spectacular, unprecedented, great things he did vs. the number of mind-bogglingly stupid, arrogant things he did. Early in his career, the jaw-dropping moments were about evenly split between the two. As he got better and better (in all ways), the good jaw-dropping moments far surpassed the bad jaw-dropping moments. Once it got to about 3-to-1, I knew he’d be all right. ;)

  30. Jay Z is wack

  31. 11,

    Motivated to post more now that I see the names of contemporaries, Magic Phil, Dave M, Xodus. Well, the Hollywood stuff I meant just chart on Hurricane Artest formerly Metta (until the Court postponed the hearing due to unpaid traffic tickets), Vanessa rumors, then Shannon saying he did not sleep with his (Pau’s Gf) These are all happening at the middle of the playoffs,how can u concentrate on the game?

    Today, we read some movements from the lockouts combatants. Suddenly, they are concerned on solving the problems before Nov. 1st. What is the difference in discussing their grievances in July, Aug. why 9/1 in great hurry to talk? Money well is drying up, I presumed. Unfortunately, The fans are also losing interests on this continuous brinkmanship and posturing. Like the old Al Davis, he thought he could sequester LA’s appetite for NFL and his Raiders. This could happen also to NBA, the more they prolong the lockout, the closer they become obsolete and old. The next question what happens to the lost revenues? It will be good as gone and could be absorbed by other form of entertainment. To a poor unemployed fan, it’s really savings in getting cables, game attendance, jerseys, parking etc headaches also to AEG return of investments and the other 30 stadiums….fans on this forum will be winners because they’ll just continue blogging for free with Darius through imaginary NBA games and more what-if’s scenarios. lol!

  32. @28

    Right on target.

    Addition,no one dare write it but truth is he is the single most disrespected star by the refs.