It’s happening: Dwight Howard, the petulant behemoth who kept reminding you he was still playing for the Orlando Magic and was not happy about that fact, is heading to L.A. On the one hand, this is wonderful news, because the horrid and unending “Where will Dwight Howard go?” blather will finally stop invading actual sports news (well, for now, but more on that in a second). Continue reading
Kobe Bryant is in his 15th season in the NBA. The fact that he has somehow gone all this time — 15 years spent on the league’s glamour franchise — and not made a single public misstep, not shown a single time that he might be less than perfect, is quite astonishing. Not a single scandal or flaw, this guy.
So I don’t know what to make of this video, wherein Kobe appears to lose his cool (for the very first time!) in the direction of a referee. Scroll ahead to the :35 mark:
That’s Kobe Bryant — one of the Faces of the League, five-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, franchise player, top-jersey-seller, superstar — directing a gay slur at a referee who made a call he didn’t like. This would be shocking were it not for Kobe’s career-long history of being a tremendous athlete who also appears to be an thoroughly unlikable human being. That he was caught by TNT’s cameras isn’t the issue, though it’s nice a national audience got a reminder of Kobe’s personality (as opposed to carefully stage-managed interviews and commercials and the like). The ref, who makes somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000 per game, is responsible for calling fouls and technical fouls during a game. Kobe Bryant, who makes that referee’s salary in just one regular season game, has never committed a foul in his life.
Kobe released a statement (through the Lakers) saying his comment “should not be taken literally.” Because we live in a time where we say things that aren’t meant to be factual statements, I suppose. He also says his comments weren’t meant to offend anyone. At no point does he actually apologize for using a word that is, by design, used to offend and hurt people. He did seem to apologize later on. Bryant was fined $100,000 by the league (his salary for roughly one-third of an NBA game) and reprimanded by commissioner David Stern. (Unsurprisingly, he will appeal the fine.)
I say this as someone who pays a lot of attention to the NBA: Kobe Bryant does not seem like a good person. He might be a good guy in his real life, I don’t know, but I know that in his actions, behavior and comments on and off the court as well as his general persona, he seems cartoonishly unlikable. I’m not basing this on the rape allegations, which were dismissed but nonetheless remain the first thing most people think about when they think about Kobe. I’m basing this on the way he snarls at reporters and teammates alike, denigrates his competitors and compatriots, sneers at those he deems as lesser than him, forcibly smiles and laughs in interviews in an attempt to show a “softer side,” sells out teammates for their own shady behavior, demands trades and complains about his bosses, among other things.
We laud ferocity and competitiveness in our athletes. When someone doesn’t win the big one, we ask if they really have the drive of a true champion. If LeBron can’t win a title, maybe he just doesn’t have it in him to dominate. We want focus, determination and a win-at-all-costs ethos. Michael Jordan, the greatest professional athlete of this or any other era, embodied this. He was famously competitive, not above punching a teammate during practice or verbally abusing someone who wasn’t up to snuff. And we adulate him for this, because he was the greatest, because he was MJ, because he won six rings and played the game at a level not seen before or since. Kobe Bryant, like all of his peers, wants desperately to be like Mike. He wants to be viewed as the greatest competitor on the floor. There are two problems with this: First, he’s not as likable as Jordan. (Whatever his flaws, Jordan had a charisma that Kobe cannot replicate.) And Jordan played before the era of Twitter, YouTube and constant coverage. His highlights ran on ESPN and that was it. It wasn’t like everybody heard, all the time, about all of these bad things Jordan allegedly did off the court. (Some of these things were reported, yes, but not constantly, and they didn’t live on in perpetuity on YouTube and the Smoking Gun.)
Some superstars do seem like good guys. Magic Johnson springs to mind, as do Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash and Dwight Howard (I’m not saying they are perfect, of course, but they simply come across differently). Even if Jordan was the best (and he was), that doesn’t mean he was necessarily a good guy or fun person to play with or anything. Kobe seems to fall into the same category. He’s a transcendent talent, but the kind of person that you probably never want to interact with outside of watching his highlights. Every so often, we get a reminder of this, and then he drops 45 points and cracks a joke during the post-game interview and all is forgotten. For a while, anyway. Because stuff like this doesn’t surprise people who have watched Kobe for a while. This is all we expect of him.