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OFF THE PLATE: AUGUST 2009

Why Kobe Bryant is the eternal MVP.

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Photo: Kobe Bryant, the 2009 NBA Finals MVP, at the Laker parade in Los Angeles. By Chef Jud Kilgore.

More than a month has passed since the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2009 NBA Championship and Kobe Bryant earned the 2009 NBA Finals MVP Award. And not only does the aura of victory continue to linger in Tinseltown but Kobe still manages to exhilarate his fans worldwide. As of this writing, the 30-year-old point guard and team captain is on a six-day tour through Asia. While traveling to the continent last year meant teaming up with America's best basketball players to win Olympic gold in Beijing, this year it's all about Kobe promoting his new shoe.

I planned to write this piece for publication in July. But then Michael Jackson died and the vibe in LA sunk deeply from purple-and-gold euphoria to the pit of devastating grief. As for publishing this month, I had doubts the topic would be relevant in August. Afterall, it was the end of May when I first promoted the story, just after the league passed Kobe over for the regular season MVP award, instead giving it to LeBron James for helping Cleveland win an impressive 66 games. What followed was "King James" and the Cavaliers steamrolling over everyone in the Eastern Conference playoffs, leaving each series 4-0 until they faced off against the Orlando Magic.

During that time, it just felt like a bad day for LA. Much of the series against Houston was disastrous—as Lakers fans remember but most likely wanting to forget. The surprising Game 4 loss against the sans-Yao-Ming Rockets (99-87) prompted one caller on AM 570's Lakers Line to refer to the purple-and-gold defeat as "The Mother's Day Massacre." The media started ripping into Coach Phil Jackson for not being aggressive enough and the team for lacking the killer instinct. Fans began to wonder if Derek Fisher had seen his day and Andrew Bynum was a waste of money. All the while, Kobe haters were having a field day.

NBA followers, Lakers fans or not, started to wonder if it was true that Kobe could not win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. Even Jerry West—Lakers legend, one of Kobe's mentors and the inspiration for the NBA logo—came out and said LeBron James had passed Kobe as the better of the two NBA players. Meanwhile, advertisers and sports commentators played off of a Kobe-LeBron rivalry. And it's not over. The recent Espy Awards claimed James as the better basketball player over Bryant.

But what inspired this piece was a tweet by the extraordinary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Showtime center said something to the effect of (not a direct quote), "Kobe may not be the flavor of the month, but he is still the important influence for the Lakers." Kareem made this comment after complimenting LeBron James for his 2009 post-season clutch shots.

It was around this time that I came up with the angle for this article, when the term "eternal" seemed most appropriate. I set out to claim that, even though Kobe was not awarded the official honor in 2009, he stood as the season's true MVP. LeBron James had earned the props for his physical strength, scoring record, all-around game and leading the Cavs to the winningest record in the regular season. Still, while inconsistent, the Lakers stats were not-too-shabby. They won 65 out of 82 games thanks to the leadership of Kobe and the team's ultimate motivator Derek Fisher. Thankfully, by the end of the post-season, none of this mattered. Cinching the finals in Game 5 against Orlando, the Lakers would show the world who the real champs are.

As for my point about Kobe as the eternal MVP, this is certainly not to diminish the greats who've preceded him. Kareem, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain come to mind, as do Lakers-rival greats such as Isaiah Thomas, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, each of whom reigns as the greatest player of all time in the hearts of their respective fans.

But for me, that greatest player is Kobe Bryant. Having grown up in a Laker-fanatic household, it was Bryant who inspired me to fall in love with the game. Through my new-found passion, I learned a little something about what it is like to remain loyal to a team, and an athlete—amid winning, losing, massive humiliation or degradation.

Kobe is more than just a versatile and entertaining player. He has an archetypal nature that separates him from the NBA's class of champions. Through the stages of stepping out into the world as a "fool" on his journey, learning through mentors and classical training, experiencing the pride before the fall, jealousy by his foes and so-called friends, familial separation and hitting numerous low points both personally and professionally, Kobe always rises again.

The Fool's Journey

After his unprecedented career at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, a 17-year-old Bryant entered the league at a time when NBA stars had already been born, glorified and retired. By that time, Kobe had lived and played basketball in two countries, attained an 1,100 on the SAT and declined a number of opportunities to help just one lucky university win back-to-back NCAA championships, opting instead to play professional basketball straight out of high school. When Kobe reached the NBA as a young grasshopper, all eyes were on the six-foot, seven-inch point guard.

For a minute, it seemed as if the Universe supported Bryant on his journey to be the league's hot young star. But not too soon afterward, he would come face-to-face with an ever-growing cohort that has defined the whole of Bryant's career—his skeptics.

Adidas offered him a sponsorship contract before he even started in the league. In 1996, he was the 13th draft pick in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets, who immediately traded him to his dream team the Los Angeles Lakers. Not too long afterward, the Lakers acquired Shaquille O'Neal from the Orlando Magic. Shaq arrived with a stunning record as a top scorer and rebounder, but head coach Del Harris was doubtful about what Bryant, the youngest player to ever enter the league at the time, could produce.

But production was not an issue for Kobe. In his first three years in the league, Bryant earned a reputation as a bold player who would take shots nobody else in the league would. Earning more minutes in his second season, Bryant's point averages more than doubled from 7.6 to 15.4 points per game. In 1998, Kobe signed a six-year contract extension worth $70 million and he was already being compared to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

No, production was not an issue for Kobe. His unrelenting competitive spirit was. And so was his own brand of immaturity, much of which stemmed from not learning another form of sportsmanship while in the NCAA. Kobe went from a high school star who was encouraged to score whenever he held the ball to learning how to pass it and play unselfishly.

Much like the underling who does not let the boss win in a round of golf, Kobe was not one to let veteran players off the hook on national television. In a game against the Sixers, while still a rookie, Kobe's showoff dunks caused a slamdown by Philadelphia center Scott Williams. After several minutes of laying on the floor, not moving and in front of his hometown fans, Kobe finally got up and continued playing.

The legendary Lakers guard Eddie Jones would say later, "I told him [Kobe] after the game, the more you embarrass the big guys by dunking the ball, the more they come after you and foul you hard." In terms of ironic speculation, it was probably Kobe's desire to prove himself as more than a skinny, teenage rookie that prompted those plays. But, unfortunately, all that did was bring on a backlash.1 Next »

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