Late last night, after hearing yet another TV analyst talk about Kobe Bryant‘s “drive” and “competitiveness” and “will to win” the same way you’d talk about a woman’s features, I wondered when we started defining our greatest athletes with intangible terms we can’t even define.
Nevermind the ring count: This is how Kobe has truly set himself apart from Shaq. For any athlete, once they stop talking about your actual talent and statistics and instead fawn over your “desire” and “clutch” and “mental toughness,” you’ve made it to a different level of legend status. Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Lance Armstrong, Brett Favre … this is the class Kobe has been on the doorstep of entering for years, the class everybody wanted to put him in, the class he finally joined last night with his first post-Shaq championship and Finals MVP. It’s not an exact science to determine who makes it there. Favre and his one Super Bowl ring are in; Shaq and his four NBA rings are still out. Evander Holyfield is in; superior fighter Lennox Lewis is out.
And while today and the rest of the summer will be devoted to the “Kobe vs. Jordan” argument, there’s another athlete in that aforementioned elite class (I’d call it the League of Clutch if Gatorade hadn’t already worn that out) with whom Kobe has a lot more in common: Derek Jeter.
What separates Kobe and Jeter from most of the athletes in that next-level elite class is that most of them are universally loved, with few haters. You have to search hard for anybody to say a bad thing about Lance Armstrong or Jordan or Russell. Kobe and Jeter, on the other hand, are still in that area where large legions of folks are still convinced they are the John Milton of their respective sports, and can’t be swayed any other way.
Because Kobe (Lakers) and Jeter (Yankees) are the respective faces of successful, big-money, big-market franchises that polarize fan bases just on GP, the stage is already set for a love/hate relationship with the public. Throw in the natural feelings that come along when fans feel like an athlete’s greatness is being forced down their throat by the media, and Kobe and Jeter have even more of an uphill battle.
You heard Kobe in his sit-down ESPN interview after Game 5, asked how this championship changes public opinion of him: “I have no idea.” Kobe knows a lot of people don’t like him. When he came into the League in 1996, he was trying to be that universally loved Jordan figure, but had to give it up for good — guilty or innocent — after the Colorado case.
Kobe has acknowledged his love/hate dynamic in commercials (“Hate that I’m loved for the exact same reason.”). Jeter has done the same. (“To me, [booing] sounds like victory.”) But while they’ve both hit the stage in their careers where those paid to put their careers in perspective have stopped using numbers and accomplishments to prove their points, that’s still the best unit of measure, the one that even the most stubborn hater shouldn’t be able to argue with.
After all, the numbers can’t lie THAT much. Jeter’s resume is impeccable. Kobe, with four championships, a Finals MVP, a regular season MVP, a bunch of All-NBA and All-Defensive picks, and two scoring titles, is in the same position.
At some point, you just have to accept reality. Whether you choose to define Kobe Bryant by facts and figures or more romantic ideals of clutchness and determination and whatever else, he’s done too much to be denied his place as one of the all-time greats.