It Is Time To Give Kobe Bryant The Respect He Has Earned


Kobe Bryant’s career is nearly over. Everyone knows it. Most importantly, Bryant knows it. It is easy to forget that two years ago he was having one of the best seasons of his career until he was hurt, but a lot can change in two years.

In a league where players miss games because they are tired or have a hangnail, who can ever forget Bryant limping to the free throw line to sink two free throws to seal an important Laker victory? He learned later that his Achilles tendon was torn, which is often a career-ending injury.

Bryant returned last season but was only able to play six games before injuring his knee and missing the rest of the year. He looked surprisingly healthy when he returned last fall, but his season was cut short by Byron Scott’s mismanagement of his minutes and a shoulder injury.

Bryant has always been a polarizing figure. Many fans love him, not only in Los Angeles, but around the world. Every time a Laker game is televised, no matter where the game is played, there are patrons in the seats—often a startling number of them – wearing a number 24 (or number 8) Lakers jersey. It is hard not to admire his work ethic, his drive, and his will to win. When any player earns five NBA titles in this very competitive era, it is hard to quarrel with that kind of success.

But the curious fact is, for a player so gifted and so successful, Bryant has always drawn strong criticism and has a large number of detractors. They say he shoots too much. He is selfish. He hogs the ball. He doesn’t pass. He may be great individually but is not the kind of player who makes others around him better. Often times he controls the ball so much that his teammates on the court stand around and watch him play. Many bemoan the fact that in a league where the Spurs continue to win championships because Tim Duncan and Tony Parker willingly take less money so the team can afford a better supporting cast, Bryant refused to do so and look at the Lakers now: a team full of Wesley Johnsons, Robert Sacres, Ryan Kellys, and Ronnie Prices.

The truth is, both sides are right and both sides are wrong, which is what makes Bryant such a complex figure. There is a basis for the criticism, but with most things in life, the truth is complicated. Using this season as an example, yes, Bryant took too many shots, but isn’t there an explanation? Many games he didn’t start out that way, and he was getting a lot of assists, but the team has no consistent scorers so who else was going to shoot during the team’s frequent dry spells? The absence of anyone who can score in key moments is a big part of the reason why, without him, the team loses so many contests in the final minutes. It has happened twice already this week!

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Yes, many of us wish the Lakers had more cap space this season (including me), but doesn’t the real fault lie with the Buss family? They could have offered him less money? Yet, it appears they were pleased and excited to give him the contract, and to this day, at least publicly, they continue to maintain it was a bargain. Bryant is human – was he supposed to turn the money down? Would you have turned down nearly $50,000,000 million guaranteed money if offered?

A large part of the problem was that Bryant was always viewed as aloof. Earlier in his career he was not especially verbal, and most nights he did not have anything interesting to say off the court. He let his game speak for him, so most of us got to know him only by what we saw during the games: He was a heartless warrior for whom winning was the only thing. He was willing to take on the entire opposing squad if he felt his teammates did not “have it” that night. He would take on his own teammates if they did not meet his standards either in the games or in their training.

The Colorado rape charges made things worse. It is easy to forget how serious the situation was, that if convicted, Bryant could have gone to jail for a very long time. It nearly cost him his family, his freedom, and the game he loved. In his press conference at the time, Bryant did himself no favors. In those days, he was unable to explain things clearly and the whole event seemed staged and unconvincing. He was used to controlling every facet of his life, and the realization that he couldn’t control what was happening to him only made Bryant retreat further into his own private world. He never let anyone see Kobe the man, and it remained that way for a long time.

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  • Is that so unusual? How well does the public really know LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, or any other NBA stars for that matter? Yet, most of the criticism for being guarded, has been directed at Bryant. The truth is, with any celebrity in any field, even in this age of greater access through social media, we worship people without knowing anything about who they really are.

    For all his baggage, Bryant kept playing. He kept scoring. Most important to Bryant, he kept winning. His exploits provided us with incredible moments we will never forget, far too numerous to mention. He played through many injuries that would have sidelined almost any other player. He was in incredible shape due to his unparalleled training regimen. He seemed indestructible. No one could even fathom the possibility that Bryant’s career would come to an end.

    Father time, however, had other ideas. The passage of time, and its impact, does not discriminate. It eventually diminishes your talents and stature regardless of your religion, race, wealth, talent, education, or appearance. It is the great equalizer.  Watching Bryant the past two plus seasons is a painful reminder that even the most indestructible figures are human and there is a cycle to everyone’s career and life.

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    Which brings us to the current Bryant. No matter what you thought of him over the years, there has been a change in him. Perhaps it is the wisdom that comes with age and maturity. He has turned into an insightful, thoughtful, articulate, and much more patient man. When Bryant speaks now, it is with remarkable candor, and he does so from the heart, as evidenced by the startling interviews he has given this year including his documentary playing now on Showtime.

    Rarely do any of us get the chance to see our heroes in such a stark, candid moment. Bryant has something to say and it is interesting. He is letting us in after all these years, and fans should appreciate just how rare that is among the rich and famous.

    Bryant will return one more time next season. It may be another disastrous year that will only delay the real start of the necessary rebuilding process for the team. It may also be painful to watch Bryant trying to recapture the magic that is no longer there. However, it bears remembering that players like Bryant come around once or twice in a generation. Every time there is hype about the next big-time rookie from Kentucky, North Carolina, or Duke, remember that when their careers are over, it is very unlikely they will ever achieve Bryant’s success.

    The Lakers may never have another player like Bryant. We hate to give him any credit, but perhaps Jim Buss recognized that fact which explains his current contract. It has been a torturous path, but Bryant deserves, and has earned, our respect on and off the court. He should be permitted to complete his NBA career with our support and with profound appreciation for the many wonderful memories he has provided that for most Laker fans will last a lifetime.

    Next: Dwyane Wade Doesn't Count Out Kobe Bryant