On Friday, the news of LeBron supposedly starring in a Space Jam sequel – news now debunked, thank heavens – left us as a house divided. Some said it was great, I thought it was a terrible idea. For one, Space Jam doesn’t need a follow-up film that doesn’t include Michael Jordan in the lead role. Number two, I pointed to the idea that the biggest way for LeBron to escape the shadows of legends from previous generations was to continue to carve his own identity instead of simply filling in a pre-cast mold of what star athletes are expected to do.
As an example of the latter, I pointed to Kobe Bryant as a player who started out in Mike’s shadow but eventually grew and stepped into a spotlight all his own. One of the biggest things Kobe’s done – in my eyes – is to be far more outspoken than Jordan, be it on or off the court. On Sunday, Kobe continued speaking his mind when reporters asked his thoughts on the Nets Jason Collins taking the court against the Lakers and becoming the first openly gay player to log minutes in the NBA.
“His impact [Sunday night] is greater than what people think,” Bryant said before the game. “You look at it from the context of having the first openly gay player. But they missed the domino effect that it has way beyond sports.”
“It’s fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent,” said Bryant, who is currently out of the Lakers’ lineup indefinitely with a knee injury. “I think the most important part about it, what I’ve learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage.
“It’s dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves. Afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it. A lot of these kids have depression issues or they’re being teased from other kids for being different. You wind up seeing a lot of suicides, kids injuring themselves and getting hooked on things that they should not be hooked on.”
On the impact of Collins’ first game, Bryant said: “There is a kid out there who … is going to say, ‘Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave. He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself.’”
Collins, who was scoreless in 10-plus minutes of action, said in response to Bryant’s praise, “That’s along the same lines of what I would say to every other professional athlete. … Realize that there is support there waiting for you. That’s the only thing I can say about encouraging people to be their true self.”
I admire Michael Jordan for many things. Yet, one lingering somewhat negative against him for me is that he never chose to speak up regarding social issues. I can’t say whether that was because of brand and image concerns, financial reasons or solely his decision not to be directly involved but it always bugged me that he never leverage his power to help sway the pendulum for change. No, he wasn’t required to. However, he could have…but didn’t.
Kobe’s statement puts his full support behind Collins and, even bigger, the idea of acceptance. Whether you or I agree with him or not is a personal decision we all can make. I’m at a point where it’s no where near as big a story as it should be since we all likely have a close relationship with a gay friend, family member, co-worker, etc. The media’s sensationalizing the story mostly because there’s no other story to replace it right now. All ESPN needs is Tim Tebow or Brett Favre to sign on to play in the NFL and players like Michael Sam and Jason Collins would be an afterthought.
As for Kobe, at least we know where he stands – as a man and a ballplayer – and I can respect that to the fullest. And by speaking up, Bryant’s impact – just like Collins’ – will be greater than what he may think, too.