Last week, an argument broke out in the Smack comments section that was started by Dime reader Chicagorilla:
“The one thing I don’t get about the Kobe as #1 argument is this BULL$H!T about him being fundamental. WTF? Have any of you actually watched him play? He does everything in his power to try and NOT be fundamental. … Everything (Kobe does) goes against basketball law. The fadeaway is a really low percentage shot, but (he) manages to hit them. The floater in the lane is not fundamental. The jump in the air, twist and turn, hang, then throw a no-look crosscourt pass for an open three (while entertaining and effective at times) is in no way fundamental.”
As in every argument involving one of this era’s most polarizing public figures, Kobe’s loyal fans came to his defense to portray him as the textbook example of … well, being textbook, while Kobe’s love-to-hate-him critics supported the original suggestion that he’s closer to an out-of-control jacker. And as usual, the real answer lay somewhere in the middle.
Now here’s where the media’s power and ability to craft an athlete’s image and legacy reveals itself. Anybody who has watched “Inside the NBA,” NBA TV or “SportsCenter” for more than 15 minutes of Kobe coverage knows there’s a company line when it comes to #24: Relentless worker, fierce competitor, Mariano Rivera-like closer, possessor of more “heart” and “will to win” than perhaps anyone in sports. The same language has been attached to Kobe for so long and with such conviction that fans, media and even other NBA players parrot the company line as fact — even when there is no possible way to quantify statements like “Kobe has more heart than Dwight Howard.”
Another of our taken-for-granted Kobe facts is that he is one of the most fundamentally sound players in basketball; perhaps the most fundamentally sound guard of all-time. But is that truly the case?
Watching Game 7 of this year’s NBA Finals, you can see where critics like Chicagorilla get their ammunition. On his way to a 6-for-24 performance, Kobe wasn’t just missing a lot of shots, he was taking terrible shots all night long.
There’s an easy explanation: This was arguably the biggest game of Kobe’s life, and with so much pressure on him to carry the Lakers against the Boston team that had squashed his title hopes two years earlier, he was pressing. It’s something that Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird and any other clutch performer you can name would be familiar with. But at the same time, Kobe almost took his team out of the game with his decision-making that was the antithesis of “fundamental.”
The truth is, however, that if Kobe Bryant is not fundamental, it’s only because Kobe Bryant is a gunslinger.
Undeniably, Kobe has the acumen, technique and ability to play a fundamentally near-perfect game of basketball. The first time I watched Kobe play in person, I was much more impressed with his knowledge and sense of angles on the court and how he could be a phenomenal passer when he wanted to be, than I was impressed with him simply getting buckets. Several of Kobe’s moves will be immortalized on film as “the right way” to do it. But it’s his gunslinger mentality — and the fact that so many of his gambles have paid off — that allows Kobe to slip out of the “fundamental” category, because for many of us, “fundamental” is too closely related to “conservative.”
Kobe will go for a home run when he should simply try to move the base-runner over. He’ll for for a 12th-round knockout when he simply has to win the round to win the fight. He’ll anticipate the starter’s gun, going for the world record when all he has to do is not false-start and he should end up on the medal stand.
In other words, Kobe is to basketball what Brett Favre is to football.
In many ways, the most successful man in the NBA is worlds different from the most famous man in the NFL. In a sport that takes itself way too seriously (“This is the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!”), Favre and his just-playing-ball-down-by-the-creek image brings a needed element of fun. And in a sport that is often not taken seriously enough (post-game hug-a-thons), Kobe brings a needed element of icy focus and cutthroat competitiveness. Kobe is the player we envision taking a basketball and a personal trainer with him on “vacation” in the Cayman Islands, while Favre is becoming notorious for strategically skipping the rigors of training camp just to show up when the real games start.
But between the lines, Kobe and Favre have more in common than their images suggest. They are noted iron men, with Favre’s unbreakable streak of consecutive starts despite a list of injuries as long as DMX‘s record, and Kobe’s knack for playing through mangled fingers and sore knees and aching shoulders.
Favre is football’s embodiment of a gunslinger, which is why he is the all-time leader in touchdowns and interceptions thrown. It’s why he has one Super Bowl win and three conference-championship losses. Fundamentally he can do everything a quarterback is supposed to do, but he also goes against the manual: throwing into double-coverage, or trying to squeeze a football through keyhole.
Kobe has won five NBA championships — and lost two NBA Finals series — in the same fashion. He is rewarded by his risks, but sometimes his risks spell his doom. Yet Kobe has learned that only by taking shots you’re not supposed to take and attempting moves that aren’t supposed to work do you become feared for hitting impossible shots and unleashing unprecedented moves.
On the flip side of Kobe/Favre, you have athletes like Tim Duncan and Peyton Manning. Duncan has a lot in common with Kobe — the competitiveness, the work ethic, the record of success — except he is the definition of fundamental. Manning, similarly, is just as productive and successful as Favre despite their constrasting images. Duncan plays basketball “the right way” and makes the right decisions almost every time, just like Manning is a walking QB instructional tape. And you can’t argue with their methods: Duncan has four NBA championships and Manning has one Super Bowl win under his belt. They are two of the greatest players of all-time, just like Kobe and Favre.
But Duncan and Manning are not gunslingers.
There’s a reason Kobe Bryant’s jersey consistently ranks No. 1 in sales at the NBA Store; why Nike puts so much of their muscle behind him; why he is known to even the most casual sports fan. It’s the same reason Favre dominates ESPN on a daily basis and, although Manning has broken into mainstream recognition by his willingness to be a visible pitchman, Favre is the name that generates higher TV ratings. The gunslinger style is more exciting than the fundamental approach. It makes for more compelling drama and longer-lasting memories.
And it’s not anymore “right” than the classic fundamental approach. It’s all about whether you go for that home run or go for that clutch single. Wins are wins and championships are championships, and between Kobe/Favre and Duncan/Manning, they have their share by doing it their way.
But one grouping will go down in history as unforgettable legends, while the other will reside in the, “Oh yeah, he was incredible, too” category. I’ll let you figure out which is which.