- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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I'm not going to lie: I feel sorry for Kobe Bryant. After all the turmoil last summer, pushing to leave the Lakers because he wondered whether he'd ever sniff a chance at an NBA title again, the man returns, plays brilliantly, wins MVP—and still ends the season holding back tears in Boston. Now he's got to go through the long, hot summer with the residue of a 39-point whipping in the Finals on his mind because of teammates too weak and too soft to make a difference.
When I was growing up in Hollis, Queens, my father, Ashley Smith, used to tell me all the time that there was nothing he hated more than mental weakness. In our household, that meant no tolerance at all for athletes who spent an entire regular season showcasing their skills in meaningless moments, teasing us into believing that expectations would be fulfilled, only to wilt under pressure and fold like cheap tents.
It all serves to remind us, especially in the aftermath of the mental toughness on display at the U.S. Open, that there is only one Tiger Woods. It also serves to remind us that Kobe was right about something he told me weeks ago. "I'm not Michael Jordan," he said. "There's only one Michael. There is no other." Gotta give the man credit for telling the truth. Not just about himself, but about all these other athletes not named Tiger who always seem to shrink when the moment demands they come up big.
Unlike Kobe, Jordan never got flat-out embarrassed in an NBA Finals game. In fact, Jordan never lost as many as three games in a Finals series. He wouldn't have tolerated it.
Now that Kobe is on the record as saying that he never wanted to be nor warranted being compared to MJ, we are obliged to agree with him. Kobe's skills are spectacular, but his legacy is stained by his inability to squeeze some heart out of his teammates.
Dan Marino and, more recently, Donovan McNabb similarly failed to take advantage of the big stage, just like A-Rod during his string of spectacular October failures for the Yankees. The list could go on and on.
"Real knows real," Shaquille O'Neal has said to me, more than once. "You don't teach that extra something someone has inside their chest. Leaders come in a variety of ways, but you always can see it when it's really there. At the end of the day, it's not just all about you. It's about your ability to pull the max out of someone else, to inspire them to be all they can be because they are around you. Any true champion at some point has done it."
Can't argue with that. (And, from my particular perspective, you have to love the way Shaq made his feelings about Kobe quite clear in that New York club, his freestyle now a must-see on YouTube.)
But is it fair to compare Tiger to an athlete in a team sport? Naturally, I had to consult with my pops again.
"Okay, so maybe we shouldn't give Tiger the props he gets on a regular basis," he said. "I don't think Tiger's life is all that hard on the back nine."
True. Assuming the man doesn't have a broken leg, all he has to do is walk the course, consult with his caddie, swing the right club and hit in relative silence. (See, we know golf etiquette.) How does that compare to what Kobe had to endure, watching and waiting helplessly for others to step up?
While Tiger was busy avoiding the rough in last month's spectacular and improbable victory, Kobe was forced to try and massage Pau Gasol, tutor Jordan Farmar and check to see if Luke Walton had a pulse, all while doing everything he could to literally avoid spanking Lamar Odom. Kobe couldn't make a shot for any of them any better than he could perform heart surgery to cure their collective Tin Man syndrome.
Which brings us to the real issue of the day: Is it fair to try to measure what's inside someone's chest or between his ears when so many other factors can potentially dictate an outcome?
Don't look at me! I just ask the tough questions. I don't have the easy answers. Neither does Pops. All we know is that Muhammad Ali was the Greatest of All Time. Period. He had the guts to say it and back it up. So we'll roll with that.
Hoping for another like him someday soon. Anywhere!
Stephen A. weighs in on the 2008 NBA Finals