I’ve never been OK with the Kobe-Bryant-As-Basketball-Cyborg idea. Even as his legend grows with each heroic feat; his rank in NBA history moving closer to the head of the table alongside the likes of Jordan, Kareem, Magic and Oscar while each game-winner is met with more incredulous announcer laughter … I still don’t buy into the concept that Kobe is beyond human, beyond flawed.
In my Dime #55 cover story on Kobe, I wrote: “In his 14th pro season, the NBA’s Bruce Lee — a study of focus, precision, efficiency, attention to detail, killer instinct, raw talent, charisma and sheer love of the fight — seems on a mission to prove no injury, illness, danger or distraction will stop him from dominating this sport.”
But we all know that Bruce Lee, even in the movies, was not indestructible. He had vulnerabilities and moments of weakness. So to allow Kobe Bryant that same leeway is not a criticism of the man, just a reality. Kobe is not 100 percent relentless 100 percent of the time. And that’s perfectly normal.
Revenge has been the most hyped-up storyline of the Lakers/Suns Western Conference Finals series that tips off tonight (9 p.m. EST, TNT). This stems from 2006 and 2007, when Steve Nash was at his MVP peak and Kobe was trying (unsuccessfully) to prove he could win without Shaq. Two years in a row, Nash’s Suns knocked Kobe’s Lakers out in the first round, and Kobe was under the same fire — “See, he can’t win the big one!” — that LeBron James is under right now. After the second early exit, Kobe had his infamous parking-lot rant against the Lakers’ front office and publicly requested a trade. The organization responded by getting him Pau Gasol, a championship-worthy team was assembled, and now it’s all gravy in L.A.
Kobe has alternated between downplaying the Phoenix revenge angle and fueling its fire, but deep down, I wonder if this series is more about proving something to himself than it is about “get-back” on the Suns. Think back to the 2006 Suns/Lakers matchup: That was when Kobe, at least in the eyes of the public, gave up and quit during Game 7. In the second half he took three shots and was uncharacteristically passive and uninvolved in the offense. For a player with a history of allegedly tanking games intentionally just to prove a point (to Phil Jackson, to his teammates, to the world), the ’06 playoffs was a step backwards into that immature place, and his actions went against every “He’s wired just like Jordan” argument ever made on his behalf.
But because he’s had so much success since then — adding an MVP and Olympic gold medal in 2008, then a championship and Finals MVP in 2009 — it seems everybody forgot what happened four years ago. Kobe didn’t forget. In that Dime cover story a few months ago, when I asked about the likelihood of a post-championship hangover, Kobe said he was hungrier this year.
“Before I was outside in the street, begging Phoenix and them to let me in,” he said. “Now we got in and kicked them out: now you can’t come in. We’re going to hold our house down.”
At the time I wondered why — of all the teams he could have mentioned — Kobe chose to call out Phoenix. Not San Antonio, not Detroit, not Boston, but Phoenix. I think it’s that those first-round exits still bother him, and more because of how he let them slip away than anything his opponent did.
And that’s why Kobe needs to dominate this series and show his warrior spirit one more time. By laying another victim, this particular victim, in his wake, he puts even more distance between himself and that ugly ’06 incident. Not to right any wrong Phoenix inflicted on him, but to set straight one of his biggest public failures.