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Monday, June 4, 2007
Why are we so fascinated with Kobe?

By Todd Boyd
Special to Page 2

If you're Kobe Bean Bryant, how does it feel to sit at home with the NBA Finals going on and for the third straight year you are not a part of the festivities? It must be the loneliest feeling in the world. For anyone who comes across as self-important as Kobe has over the 11 years that he has been in the NBA, this must be something akin to dying a slow, tedious death. Life has to be pretty miserable for Black Mamba right now.

It was bad enough that he had to watch his former nemesis, Shaq, and his T-Mobile sidekick, D-Wade, take the crown a year ago. This year Kobe has had to witness -- no pun intended -- the crowning of King James, the true heir apparent to the Jordan throne and a cat whose Nike contract just so happens to dwarf that of his own. As a wise man once said, it's hard out here for a pimp. No doubt.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant's flip-flop trade request spectacle was a vintage act of his self-indulgence.
Kobe's self-indulgence was on full display recently when he publicly flip-flopped all over the place, demanding a trade, then recanting, only to end up making even less sense than when he first started this attention-grabbing stunt. Too bad Dr. Melfi is about to be off the air. This man needs professional help. Or at least a hug.

To say that Kobe Bryant is one of the most perplexing personalities in contemporary sports is an understatement. The son of a former NBA player, he who grew up between Italy and the 'burbs of Philly as a child basketball prodigy and that rarity of rarities, an upper-middle class, black spoiled brat. From the days of the numerous air balls against Utah that ended the Lakers' season in his rookie year to this most recent plea for attention, Kobe has long been a mystery wrapped up in an enigma; partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.

It's hard to deny his basketball skills, especially on the offensive end of the floor. I have long thought that his defense was overrated though. In general, he can lock someone down when he decides to, but he doesn't do it often enough to warrant inclusion on the All-Defensive first team, for my taste. But with the ball in his hands, when he's not pouting or trying to prove a point about how invaluable he is to the team, he can be unstoppable. That being said, the "Kobe Rules" that Larry Brown implemented and Tayshaun Prince and the Pistons executed in 2004 Finals exposed Kobe as the undisciplined, glorified streetball player that he can still be at times.

His skills on the court notwithstanding, though, it is Kobe's distinct persona that continues to attract all kinds of interest. But the interest he attracts is of a different variety than what we've become accustomed to in the modern NBA. The league now is one, like hip-hop culture, in which the dominant narrative is of the "up by the bootstraps" capitalist variety. We are told that poor, fatherless, black boys from the 'hoods of America pick up a basketball at an early age and use this prop as a means to an end. This romanticized ashy to classy transition from ghetto dweller to NBA superstar has become quite familiar. The NBA "come up" is as popular a tale now as those once told by Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. But you won't find Kobe's name on any of these pages. No, Kobe, like a more media-friendly Barry Bonds, grew up in relative opulence as the legacy of a professional athlete.

Though we have yet to see black legacies in corporate America or in the media, for that matter, we do now routinely see them in sports. One need only look at the Florida and Georgetown teams in this year's Final Four -- where the sons of John Thompson, Patrick Ewing, Doc Rivers, Yannick Noah, Tito Horford and Sidney Green all participated -- to recognize how pervasive this trend has become. I'm not saying that growing up with a black sports father is the same as growing up as a Rockefeller, but it is certainly different than growing up as the son of a single mother on welfare.

Kobe has no 'hood stories to tell. His lack of a ghetto background is evident in his speech and his demeanor. Though he often plays basketball like he grew up in the 'hood, he most certainly did not. This is not a criticism, nor it is a judgment of his blackness, it is simply a statement of fact made more evident as it exists in contrast to the NBA norm.

In today's NBA, where the overwhelming majority of the players are black, race has been somewhat neutralized as a factor of identity. Blackness is the norm now, and NBA basketball is one of the few places in American society where the norm is black. Anytime you have a norm, it tends to go unspoken. Instead, it is assumed. Notice we seldom say the phrase "black basketball player," as the nature of the profession in question assumes a particular identity. We tend to speak of that which is outside of the norm, in this case whiteness; thus the need to modify Jason Williams' nickname, "White Chocolate," in a racialized way, for example, so as to point to the fact that his style is black, though he himself is not.

Nationality nuances this somewhat. Dirk Nowitzki is white, but he's also German, not American. His race is less relevant than his national identity. Whereas in the days of Magic/Bird some people may have embraced their players and teams based on race, this is no longer necessarily the case. A white American is certainly more likely now to embrace a black American athlete over a foreign player who just so happens to be white.

So what tends to be of most significance is the social and economic class status of various players. Guys like Kobe, Tim Duncan and that '90s NBA "savior" Grant Hill, have a different image than that of the players with lower-class roots. The largest percentage of foreign players in the league tend to come from formerly war torn places such as Serbia and Crotia or other economically depressed regions in Eastern Europe, some of which are places that would make the ghettoes of America seem like Beverly Hills by comparison.

Kobe Bryant
One reason people are attracted to Kobe is because he is nonthreatening.
Considering all these class politics, it makes sense that a large number of people find themselves attracted to the glow of Kobe's star. Not because he is a thug or because he embodies the hip-hop ethos that make so many people cringe, quite the opposite actually, it is because he is ultimately nonthreatening. His public persona is most certainly Laguna Beach and definitely not Compton. He is more Will Smith than he is 50 Cent. Kobe incites annoyance more so than he does fear. His public meltdowns demand a timeout more so than a call to the police.

If my claims here seem a bit exaggerated, forgive me. I live in the belly of the Laker beast, and so my perspective on this is undoubtedly influenced by proximity. Lakers fans love Kobe the way that Giants fans love Bonds, but I'm sure once we get outside of Lakerland, the adoration is somewhat less enthusiastic, especially in Colorado.

A few years ago, there were many who felt that Kobe was the main reason that the Lakers traded Shaq. It must be remembered that Jerry Buss signs the checks in Lakerland, not Kobe. So to blame Kobe for that egregiously inept act is somewhat misdirected. But Kobe's hands are not completely clean on this matter either. He and Shaq had reached a point where it was impossible for them to work together anymore. Though many suggested that, considering their enormous salaries, they should have been able to work out their differences, their relationship was broken beyond repair. We have all had someone whom we have worked with that we simply could not tolerate. The money is irrelevant here. The two hated working together, and we all watched this soap opera play out over an eight-year period. Maybe Buss used Kobe as a scapegoat for his unpopular trade of Shaq, and maybe Kobe verbally co-signed the move because he thought, at the time, that he would be better off with the Lakers' being "his team" than having to continue to defer to Shaq. There's probably truth somewhere in the middle of these two positions.

Either way, Kobe now realizes that though he's won two scoring titles, two first-round playoff exits lessen those individual accomplishments. Kobe's scoring 81 points in a meaningless regular-season game last year against one of the worst teams in the league at the time is worth a lot less than King James' scoring 48 points, 25 of those in a row, and 29 out of his team's last 30 points on his way to the NBA Finals.

As they say, you make the All-Star team in February, but you become a champion in June. Shaq knows this all too well. He has been to the Finals with three different teams and won titles with two of them. Say what you will about his shortcomings now, but Shaq is the best player of his generation, and he has the hardware to prove it. One could make the argument that were it not for Shaq, the only ring on Kobe's finger would be his wedding ring.

So now he wants a trade, or does he? Who knows? Any team that potentially gets Kobe Bryant better be prepared for diva behavior of the highest order. No, he won't wreck the team the way that Ron Artest killed a promising Indiana team, but he will contaminate team chemistry in his own petulant way. Perhaps he should just quit basketball altogether, and make the leap to Hollywood, where there is a culture already in place to cater to pampered celebrities of a different sort. In Hollywood, with all the publicists and other attendant flunkies, he would be right at home. He could whine to his heart's delight, and there would always be people there to wipe the tears away with a smile on their faces while doing it.

The excessive attention afforded Kobe Bryant often grows out of a deep-seated contempt for the lower-class thugs that many assume most NBA players to be. Kobe is user friendly in a way that someone like Rasheed Wallace will never be. Therefore people will pay attention to Kobe's desperate pleas for attention the same way that they pay attention to a soap opera like "Desperate Housewives" or, better yet, candid tabloid photos of doped-out young starlets on a night out clubbing.

Considering that it's June though, I would rather watch the NBA Finals when the game itself is what's most relevant, not some reality show about an entitled, indulgent celebrity who can get people's attention only by acting out his neurotic impulses at the expense of other more important happenings. Stay in your lane, Kobe. It's not about you right now.

Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator and a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s" will be published this month.