Monday, November 3, 2008

Do You Think Kobe Already Has LeBron's Home Address?

Kobe Bryant owes LeBron James a very large Thank You card.

If you've seen the new Guitar Hero commercial with Kobe, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Hawk, and Michael Phelps, several things are obvious.

First, A-Rod is beyond help.

If he can't look natural goofing around at this point in his career/life, he never will unless perhaps he wins a championship. I doubt it. The guy is too insecure to ever really be comfortable with himself, no matter the accolades. If you want further proof, find a reasonable answer as to why a professional athlete of international fame would divorce his wife and the mother of his children to hook up with a 50-year old, over-the-hill pop star. A woman who was also married and a mother at the time of their initial trysts.

Second, the jury is still out on Phelps.

He looked a tad awkward there. He might want to dial back the exposure until he's got a better handle on the camera. Of course, I didn't see him on Saturday Night Live. Nor have I thought that he looked particularly painful in any of his other commercials, so maybe it was just a bad take. What do I know? There's a reasonable chance the answer is nothing.

The third thing is the most important. Kobe Bryant has officially arrived.

I might not like it. You might not like it. But it's a fact.

Odd that a commercial would play the role of the apple in this revelation, but Kobe just looked like he was having a good time. He looked like he was sincerely enjoying the role of lead jackass. That's endearing. That's what a lot of the greats realize and embrace:

People LOVE me. I don't have to take myself too seriously because they always will.

I think that realization lives in symbiosis with another:

I am one of the best, if not the best, (fill in the blank) going right now.

In tandem, they turn very good into great. They turn a superstar into a special star, one that you will always remember and consider yourself lucky to have witnessed.

I've been really luck in my lifetime. Consider I have seen, up close and personally - Ozzie Smith, Barry Bonds, David Ortiz, Ken Griffey Jr., Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal (in his prime, the most impressive Irish force to ever take the floor), Joe Montana, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, John Elway, Jerry Rice, and Tom Brady.

And that's just off the top of my head.

I think we're gonna have to add Kobe's name to that group after this season.

And I think he's got LeBron James to thank for it. Bear with me.

When Kobe was first drafted, he was a petulant and spoiled rookie. He thought he was great already, but was far from it. No one could or did rationally question his talent. Still, he was only 18. Even exceptional talent needs time to develop into performance at the highest level of competition.

But Kobe failed to grasp that concept and carried on like he was already the New Air Jordan instead of just the Original's heir-apparent. I loathed him for it; I was not alone.

Remember that ridiculous commercial of him writing poetry or making an introspective entry in his journal or some such nonsense? Wow.

But then he started to mature. His other-worldly talent ripened and it's manifestation on the floor became a sight for tired eyes that had seen the National Basketball Association rise to glory under the tutelage of Magic, Bird, and then the Greatest of Them All.

And even haters like me came around. Supreme talent will do that to true fans every time (provided you're not out tossing people down stairs or electrocuting defenseless animals).

I was not alone.

And then came Colorado. Then chucking Shaq under the bus for seemingly no reason. Really, were those police interview transcripts real or not? Kobe's not stupid; what was he trying to accomplish by involving Shaq?

I had no illusion that he raped that girl. Give me a break. What he unquestionably did was bang some 19-year old ski bunny while his wife was home in California with a new-born baby daughter. Then he tried to worm his way out by implicating someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the situation.

Back to square one, Mr. Bryant. I was back to despising him. And I was not alone.

Kobe continued to regress after that episode. There was the increasingly public catfight with Shaq. Then the disaster season that saw Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton fail to win a championship. Then Kobe ran Shaq out of Los Angeles (either directly or indirectly). And, finally, Kobe had it his way - he got all the press and shot attempts he could handle.

Only the Lakers were no good.

I think that made Kobe take a step back and reassess the situation with an objective eye. Like I said, I think he's a pretty smart guy and I believe he really is driven by a sincere desire to win.

What he saw was Shaq winning a championship and trying to groom Dwayne Wade for the spot Kobe wanted.

He saw his Lakers struggling despite absolutely unreal numbers from Number 24.

He saw a non-LA public and media turning against him and looking to the younger generation to fill those Nikes with the guy in flight on the side.

Most importantly, he saw LeBron James and he saw a real threat to his legacy. To his place in basketball history.

That is when Kobe started to get it. To see his teammates as necessary rather than necessary evils. To see assists as something that helped his team win rather than missed shot opportunities. To see defense as important rather than a time to rest his shooting legs.

And I believe he got it because, consciously or subconsciously, he saw LeBron already had it. Although James was still a little raw, Kobe was smart enough and talented enough to see his younger self in LeBron.

Except it was young Kobe talent with mature Kobe's attitude. And I believe it shook Bryant.

For the first time, he saw that his window for basketball immortality was finite. That someone better than he would eventually come along. Perhaps he already had.

I think he saw what most of us saw in LeBron - not the next Michael Jordan, but the first LeBron James.

And he knew that he had to get his act together and secure his legacy while he still could. Kobe knew he had to raise his game to the next level while that level was still the standard for legendary remembrance. He knew that, in a couple years, LeBron will do things that no one has seen or imagined.

Things that even Kobe Bryant cannot replicate.

So prepare yourself people. Because Kobe Bryant is going to be unstoppable this year because he knows he must be.

He is going to make believers of us all.

It started last year when he carried LA to the NBA Finals almost single-handedly. It continued this summer when he led the United States back to golden glory in the Olympics by being a DEFENSIVE force of nature. And it continues right now as he plays hurt - an injury that really impacts his scoring and not much else.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I think it ends with Kobe hoisting one of the more inexplicable championship trophies in recent memory.

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