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Monday, July 21, 2003
Updated: July 29, 4:19 PM ET
The ideal of Kobe is lost forever

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Kobe was always a freak. That's what we loved about him.

Kobe Bryant
On the court, Kobe's game is smooth, fluid and always in control.
He was supernaturally smooth, regal, and skilled -- on and off the court. He walked a walk and talked a talk well beyond his years. And in everything he did, he wasn't just driven, he was drive itself, and he was not just fearless, he was fearlessness.

We ate it up. We couldn't get enough.

In an era when we see so many professional athletes as self-indulgent, wayward characters always just one step away from scandal, Kobe looked to us like a squeaky, shining exception to the rule -- too busy, too disciplined and too in love to get in trouble.

At a time when we think too many are too hungry for the Benjamins, he looked like a ball-above-all hunter on a sacred quest for nothing but rings.

We were a sick sport culture, he was the antidote. We were lost, he was the way up and out of the darkness.

We needed this to be true.

We needed to know good citizenship was alive and kicking somewhere. We needed dedication, will and a tireless eye on the prize to be real things in this world.

We didn't know Kobe. (It's impossible to know another person, especially a person in the spotlight, and most especially a person as private and publicly crafted as he was.) It was never about Kobe.

It was the idea of Kobe -- the way Kobe embodied ideas we valued -- we were drawn and dedicated to.

But now he's not an idea, he's a headline. And as of Friday, he's charged with sexual assault.

At best, the exceptional man has become common, base (ruled by his libido and not his head). And at worst, he has become something far uglier, sadder and more detestable than that.

Vanessa, Kobe Bryant
The new image of Kobe is characterized by labored lip curls and choked phrases.
We hear about a thing like this, and we're rattled in the obvious ways and for the obvious reasons: We hope the accusations aren't true, we sympathize with the alleged victim, we worry and wonder about a player we've admired and rooted for these last eight years. The human particulars -- what actually happened in that hotel room in Colorado, how the accuser and the accused are feeling right now, what this must be like for Kobe's wife Vanessa, etc. -- trouble our minds, never to be resolved.

But the freefall swoon of this moment for us comes not from any of this, but from the death of an idea. All that we'd assigned to Kobe, all that we'd thrilled to because he seemed to offer it up so cleanly and clearly, lies in pieces on the floor right now.

We cling to the possibility of his innocence, because we cling to the Kobe idea. We wring our hands at the prospect of his guilt, because we mourn the loss of the idea.

We know nothing's settled yet. We know (and we hope) Kobe might be exonerated. But we know, too, that the noise and muck of the circus these last few weeks has already shattered the Kobe idea, regardless of how things play out from here.

And we remember watching Kobe play before all this, and we tell you there was something pristine about his game, some fuel-efficient precisely calibrated something that made it easy to see past him to the basketball (to the human) virtues he practiced and professed.

His game was noiseless, compact, we say -- you could see it in the tight spiral on his shot, in the short, sharp pop of his jump -- and when you watched it, it seemed you were witness not just to the player but to the natural expression of the virtues themselves. And we were cheered by this, we say. We were hopeful. We believed, despite all the threats and temptations in this modern world, that certain principles persisted.

And then some clip from Friday's press conference comes across the screen, and all the precision of his game stumbles and bumbles into those labored lip curls and choked phrases, and we can barely stand to watch.

We're no innocents, we tell you. We know athletes, just like any of us, are vulnerable to character flaws and bad judgment. And we realize, sadly, that some of them, like some of us, will sometimes give in to terrible impulses. So we're not shocked by what has been alleged and admitted to so far. We're not decrying the fall of western civilization like this is the first or the last time such a thing has or will go down.

LeBron James
The search for the NBA's new ideal begins now.
But we believe in the remarkable exception.

We believed in the Kobe idea, and now we wonder whether it will resurface, and who it will be named for.

We worry that this might be the last of it, actually, worry that the Kobe idea was so strong, so seemingly impervious, and yet it foundered ...

But we put that thought out of our heads.

You ask us if maybe this is a chance to let go, to find the virtues, to cultivate the idea, somewhere other than in the body and spirit of a baller.

We can't hear you. We're meditating on the game, pondering the idea. And, on a channel so deep within us it is barely noticeable at first, sure enough, a name starts to vibrate in our ears.

LeBron. The LeBron idea. Yes. Surely this one will last forever.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.