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Friday, May 19, 2006
Updated: May 24, 3:38 PM ET
Kobe caught in hoops purgatory

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

The e-mails came the day after.

e-mail 1:
I'm so sick of hearing people say that Kobe quit.  You aren't a quitter if you have 23 points before the half.  If other Lakers had scored like they are paid to do the Lakers might have won Game 5!!!!!  (There shouldn't have even been a Game 7 if tired Smush and brick-hands Kwame had showed up to the playoffs.)  So don't talk to me about Kobe quitting.  You type of sports fans (who are KOBE haters) don't know what you want.  You complain when Kobe shoots a lot (according to your stats), but when he doesn't shoot a lot (and the Lakers lose) you complain.  What do you want???
-peace.

  e-mail 2:
My rule is unless I gave birth to the player, am married to the player, or am the baby mama for the player, I don't get my blood pressure up anymore because I'm older now and I might stroke myself out.  Ha ha   Seriously, you know how I feel about young Kobe so I won't rehash it with you.  I will say that my brother (name withheld) believes that the Lakers will be getting Garnett over the summer and he promises me that the Lakers will be the Lakers of old by the fall.  I am willing to wait and see -- and even take back some (not all) of the harsh things I have said about Kobe.  But I'm telling you right now that if they continue to lose w/ fabulous Kevin in the lineup and the light is shining on Kobe's head like he's the problem I'm going tell you "I told you so" very loudly and in standard, non-ebonic English.
  -no peace.
 

Wednesday night Kobe Bryant addressed the issue at hand -- the issue of his Game 7 performance against the Suns, and the issue between him and Charles Barkley that had developed over the last week. Barkley called Bryant "selfish" on national television after the Lakers lost huge in a Game 7, a game in which Kobe took only three shots and scored one point in the second half.

Jordan and Kobe
Kobe's legacy is forever tied to Jordan ... and how can Kobe win in that scenario?

It might have been the most confusing performance of his career. It was also the moment when it became overtly evident that no matter what he does for the rest of his career, Kobe Bryant can't win.


"The important part is that we play the game and play the game to win … to label me as selfish is something that I took up with Charles … it's one thing to criticize an individual's game but it's another thing to … "

On the TNT set Kobe spoke his peace. Said what he felt needed to be said, explained the issue and not necessarily why he did what he did, but where his mind was and why he didn't do what he'd normally do. Or more directly, what we all know someone else would have done if he'd been in the same situation.

Bryant said, "we stuck to the script … " and "it depends on who we're playing … " and "to demoralize them you have to stop them … " when answering questions about his performance. About Barkley, he then said, "I'm not going to jump over the table and lump him in the head."

As the words left his mouth he seemed comfortable in his belief, comfortable in why he went out like he did and "allowed" Game 7 to end the way it did. And regardless of what he said, there seemed to be something left unsaid. Something deeper than a strategy and plan that he and the Lakers wanted to execute.

And the problem is: Even if he did go deeper and tell all of us what we wanted to hear, half of us would still hate him and not believe him while the other half would hold on to his every word as gospel.

He can't win.

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And probably never will.

The reason he won't is because of the ghost that has followed him ever since he entered the NBA. The ghost of Jordan. Outside of never winning with the fans, teammates, Madison Avenue or the media, Kobe Bryant's mythical but amazingly eerie connection to Michael Jordan is the single reason why this paradox of life follows him the way that it does.

Kenny Smith even alluded to it when KB was on the set. "The barbershop question" is what he called it, to which Kobe responded, "I handle the ball more [than Jordan] … the only similarities I see are our competitiveness … we're different, we're just different."

But no one sees that but him. Just as no one sees his three-shot second half to end his unbelievable 2005-06 season as something that is a part of his basketball character.

And the Jordan "thing" is why we think that. Essentially, the rationale everyone used after Kobe's Game 7 performance -- making the judgments much more severe than they should have been -- is the mental attachment that, "Well, Jordan wouldn't have gone out like that."

And anyone who says they haven't said that out loud or to themselves since May 7 is lying.


Theories give reason. If this is true, here's two to grow on.

Theory 23/45/23: Had Michael Jordan never existed, Kobe Bryant probably would be the most celebrated basketball player in the world.

Why? Because we would have never seen anyone do what he does on the basketball court; we'd be amazed … the same way we were when He blessed us in 1984. But the problem is, he did bless us and he did exist. Which is good for us, but over the years has made Kobe Bryant's life a living hell.

Theory 8/24: Had Kobe Bryant come into the league in 2002 with Amare or 2003 with LeBron, D-Wade, C-Bosh and Melo, or in 2004 with Dwight, or any year after Michael Jordan left the NBA, the comparisons would not haunt him the way they do.

And without haunting him, we -- the fans and the media -- would not draw the immediate comparisons forever between the intimacy of MJ's exit and KB's entrance. Had LeBron James come into the NBA in 1990, while Magic was still playing, and LB played against Magic, his life would be haunted the same way Kobe's is.

But LeBron didn't; he lucked out. So all we do is make general analogies, suggested resemblances. It's the difference between "LeBron James is the next Magic," as opposed to "Kobe Bryant is trying to be like Jordan."

There's an extremely big dissimilarity in the two statements. One that probably only Kobe recognizes because he's the one that has to live and live with it.

But the fact that Kobe came into the L on the heels of Jordan's second exodus -- and being so Jordanesque at the time -- human nature alone makes us connect him to Jordan like Bapes to Air Force Ones, Ask.com to Google, Chris Brown to Usher, Dime to Slam.

Jordan and Kobe
How quickly we forget: During Jordan's highest-scoring year, the Bulls finished under .500.
And this season might have been the worst for Kobe. By averaging 35.4 ppg, it took everyone back to 1986-87, when Jordan went ballistic, averaging over 37 a clip.

It's funny when they reminisce over you inside of a paradox like this, because no one mentioned how that season the Bulls played under-.500 basketball (40-42, fifth in their division, 17 games out of first place) and how they got swept in the first round by Boston, yet Kobe got the Lakers to play over-.500 ball (45-37, third in their division, nine games from first) and push the Suns to a "win or go home" game in the first round … and he gets dogged. Or how Michael came in second in MVP voting that year to Magic, yet Kobe came in fourth this year, fifth in the general managers voting poll.

Yet, they basically had the exact same statistical season.

MJ, '86-87: 37.1 ppg/5.2 rpg/4.6 apg
KB, '05-06: 35.4 ppg/5.3 rpg/4.5 apg

Yet, Kobe's season is being held against him.

Which leaves the question open: Is the MJ lineage Kobe inherited unfair?

The answer is yes.

It's yes because without Jordan, direct analogies would not be made about everything he does on the basketball court; it's yes because we would not have a barometer to judge his every success and failure; it's yes because we wouldn't automatically say things like, "Damn he sounds just like MJ when he talks and damn he walks like MJ when he walks" to "his shoes don't sell like MJ's and he didn't sign with Brand Jordan because he wanted to be Nike's Jordan" to "the only reason he cut his Afro was to be more like MJ and the reason he's switching his number to 24 is because it's one number higher than MJ's."

He can never run from it.

His career is Jordan's in reverse. Win early, struggle late. But Jordan never had to go through this. Never had to deal with this type of scrutiny, never had to deal with this type of hate, never had to come on national television to discuss why he did what he did in the second half of a ball game that was lost at halftime.

In a season that was lost the minute the ref tossed up the ball in the very first game.


Overlooked in all of this new Kobegate is a point Kenny Smith made during and after the infamous Game 7. He talked about Kobe being in a place no other basketball player exists. A damned if he does, damned if he doesn't place. Hoops purgatory. A place where he can't win.

Which is funny, because the first comment out of Kobe's mouth the other night was, "We play the game to win."

Unfortunately for Kobe, you can only play basketball to win.

The game that is his life has slowly become a no-win situation.

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.