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Is Kobe really that competitive?

By 12.05.08
Kobe BryantKobe Bryant (photo. Chris Sembrot)

Maybe it’s because I just wrote yet another defense of Vince Carter, or because my T-Mac defensive walls are up given all the “Your boy is hurt AGAIN!?!” e-mails I’ve been getting, but there’s a question I’ve had on my mind for a while regarding one Kobe Bryant that I finally felt needed to be posed to the readers.

Kobe fans and Kobe critics both constantly refer to Mamba’s killer instinct, his cold-blooded assassin’s mindset, his undying will to win. As I wrote in Dime #43 for the Olympic Players To Watch feature:

In the case of Kobe Bryant, each time he loses, we expect him to respond viciously by — hotly or coldly, but always systematically — destroying the competition his next time out. How often have you heard it following a Lakers loss? Kobe’s pissed. He’s gonna drop 50 tomorrow. Whether it always comes true is irrelevant (four of KB’s seven 40- or 50-point games this past season came after a loss); for it is the threat of terrorism that endures longer than the actual act.

But then I look at events like Game Seven of L.A.’s 2006 playoff series against the Suns, when Kobe only shot the ball three times in the second half of a 31-point loss and was noticeably passive on the court. I look at Game Two of the following year’s Lakers/Suns series, a 28-point loss where Kobe took 13 shots, more than half of them coming in the first quarter before pulling back for whatever reason. Then there was the decisive Game Six of last year’s Finals, or those occasional regular-season games during the Kobe/Shaq era where several observers accused Kobe of being passive on purpose in order to prove a point.

Kobe’s most blindly faithful followers never mention it — they’d sooner talk about Colorado than talk about some of Kobe’s worst games. And yet every time their guy is dragged into an argument involving someone like Vince or T-Mac, or even Michael Jordan, Kobe supporters inevitably throw around how he’s so much harder and so much more competitive than everyone else in the League, how he plays 100% ALL THE TIME and never, EVER lets up. I’m not saying Kobe is wrong for having his moments where he goes less than all-out. He’s human, just like Vince, just like T-Mac, and just like Jordan. I don’t think for one second that any pro athlete has always gone full-bore every single moment they were between the lines; it’s just not natural. The way Kobe is portrayed, however, you’d think he’s something closer to a comic-book hero than a man.

So my question is this: Haven’t we seen evidence that Kobe isn’t as competitive as we’ve been led to believe? Haven’t we seen him mail it in before, if not outright give up, not to mention on the postseason stage? (And not in an understandable, “There’s four seconds left and we’re down by 12,” kind of way, either.) Doesn’t this all conflict with the widely-accepted perception of Kobe as the game’s ultimate, unyielding competitor?

Set me straight if you can…


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