"I've got one more than Shaq." -- Kobe Bryant
The accolades would seem to indicate that respect has not been an issue for Kobe Bryant -- the respect of fans, the respect of his peers, the respect of the media.
In his career, Kobe Bryant has been selected to the All-Star Game twelve times. He has been named All-NBA First Team eight times. He's gotten it done at both ends of the floor, winning two scoring titles and garnering first team All-Defensive honors eight times. He's been named league MVP once (2008) and in his prime seasons (age 28+) when Kobe didn't win the regular season MVP, he responded in each of those two seasons by winning the NBA Finals MVP.
The latest honor came last night on the heels of an 83-79 Laker win in Game 7 of the NBA Finals that was equal parts heart-pounding and hideous.
Further, in the last two seasons, Kobe had to listen to virtually everyone anoint LeBron James as the Chosen One, including the media who not only handed LeBron a second-consecutive regular-season MVP Award in overwhelming fashion but also insultingly allowed the league's weak sisters' chase for James' services for the next half decade to overshadow the chase for something that players who are in actuality the most valuable go get -- the NBA Championship.
In some sense, it would seem Kobe's two NBA Finals MVP awards are a direct response to a basketball world quick to turn the page on the only player of this decade who can truly stake a claim to 2000-2010 as his era (Bryant), a direct response to everyone wanting to fast forward to the LeBron Era because...well, LeBron is spectacular, especially from November till May.
But this is not about LeBron. Not for Kobe, it isn't. If you peel back the layers of the onion that is Kobe Bryant's career, his obsession is with two people -- Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, the former being the benchmark that he has been bred to surpass from the time he was balling for Lower Merion High School near Philadelphia, and the latter being the source of the shadow that he has spent the better part of his adult years trying to escape.
I've always thought that we find out the most about a person -- who they are, what they are about -- at one of two times: one, when they think that no one is watching; and two, when they are answering questions in times heightened by raw emotion (love, hatred, death). When Kobe Bryant was asked what last night's championship win meant to him, he answered immediately, decisively, and with ZERO hint of a smile -- "I've got one more than Shaq."
It would be interesting to know if Shaquille O'Neal even cares. The Shaq-Kobe relationship has always had a big brother-little brother dynamic to it, in both physical stature and the respective treatment of the rivalry -- Shaq being the big brother making calculated, but playful comments ("Tell me how my ass tastes, Kobe!") and Kobe being the little brother who overreacts by running and telling mom (or forcing mom to trade his big brother to the Miami Heat). Shaq is largely viewed by fans as a big, playful kid; Kobe is viewed by fans as a single-minded prick.
There's nothing Kobe can do about that. As much as he wants to kiss his wife in the middle of the floor after winning the title and bring his young daughters to the post-game press conference, many will always see Kobe as a douche bag who happens to take over basketball games. Deep down, Kobe knows this. Hence, the 100 percent authentic answer of "What does this title mean to you?"
"I've got one more than Shaq."
The irony in all of this is that Bryant in his younger, more selfish years probably viewed Shaq as an impediment to his birthright, the inheritance of the title "best ever" from Jordan. After all, how can you be viewed as the "best ever" if there's a question as to whether you're even the best on your own team? That selfishness was the impetus for the Lakers' trading Shaq to Miami, and for Kobe nearly leaving Los Angeles mid-decade when the Lakers had devolved into "Kobe and a pile of turds." It's ironic because in today's sports world where the easiest thing to do is just start ranking players using "titles won" as the end-all and be-all and saying that one player is greater than another because he won five titles and so-and-so only won four, the fact of the matter is that Kobe Bryant wouldn't have five championship rings without Shaquille O'Neal. Not even close.
And without those five rings, there is no comparison to Kobe Bryant's other obsession -- Michael Jeffrey Jordan. From the time he arrived in the NBA, Kobe Bryant has been obsessed with Michael Jordan. He may not have come out and said it, but look at the evidence. Look at his game. Hell, look at the way he moved his lips when he spoke in interviews when he first came into the league -- every interview looked like Kobe was entered in a Michael Jordan Impersonation Contest....and winning.
Last night, outwardly Kobe was talking about being one ahead of Shaq, but in his mind, my guess is he was thinking about being one away from Jordan. The problem for Kobe is that he can win seven, eight, nine titles. He'll never be Michael. There are similarities, to be sure -- their respective evolutions from explosive phenom to fully rounded superstar, the insatiable will to win, the euphoria over ripping an opponent's heart out of his chest and dangling it in front of their face with no remorse. They are similar, but they're not the same.
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To know the difference between Michael and Kobe is to have experienced both of them as a fan -- throughout his entire career, Michael Jordan was a rock star who turned the Bulls into the Beatles. Kobe is more boy band than rock star. Michael was about a level of dominance that left you beaten by his sheer aura before you even took the floor. No way Michael lets an aging Celtics team scoring in the 70's hang around for an entire Game 7. Actually, there's no way Michael lets that series get to Game 6. Whereas other players won MVP awards on Michael's watch because the media seemed to get bored with his greatness, Kobe has only won one MVP award largely because people have legitimately thought other guys are better.
Michael Jordan routinely shot over 50 percent from the field for his career; Kobe Bryant has never shot 50 percent from the field for a season in his career. Ever. In fact, he's a 45.5 percent career shooter. Michael Jordan never had the help of an elite level big man in winning any of his six NBA championships; Kobe had Shaquille O'Neal for the first three, and Pau Gasol for the last two. The lasting memory from Michael Jordan's final NBA title was his shattering the ankles of Bryon Russell and knocking down the game winner; the lasting memory from Kobe's most recent NBA title was Ron Artest thanking his psychiatrist and then promoting his new single in the post game interview.
You see my point -- as hard as Kobe tries, he is not Michael. He never was Michael, and he will never be Michael. Ultimately, Kobe will have to settle for going one for two in vanquishing the pair of foes about whom he has obsessed for his entire career. That will be his legacy. At least he can say he shot fifty percent on that.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.