When I was growing up, I played a lot of sports video games: Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, maybe some NHL here and there.
Several years back I wrote some commentary, backed by subjective and objective analysis, that we should consider Tim Duncan the unanimous winner in the ‘player of the era’ bout versus Mr Kobe Bryant.
The reaction to such a blasphemous claim was swift and merciless. The common wisdom at the time was that Kobe wasn’t just the best player of his era, but potentially a historical rival to Michael Jordan on the basketball totem pole.
To question this baseline assumption was basketball heresy.
The only problem with that viewpoint was that at no point has Kobe’s on court resume been able to be sensibly proffered as an equal to that of Jordan’s in any reasonable regard. Hell, at no point does his on court production come close to mirroring that of LeBron James.
But he played for arguably the most storied franchise in basketball, in the show business city which sells perception at many times above what it can get for reality.
He also came along in an era where the sheer quantum of minutes and column inches for media coverage of sports had started to ramp up before the sophistication and depth of analysis had caught up.
Another often forgotten part of Kobe’s public rise was that Shaquille O’Neal absorbed much of the slings and arrows that came with being the tallest poppy in the field. Kobe was able to fill the role of the superstar Padawan who could bask in the championship glow while the slings of envy were targeted elsewhere.
And so Kobe’s legend outgrew his on court performance.
Skip forward a few years and after we watch a ‘championship contender’ limp into a seventh seed and a first round exit on the back of chemistry issues, and the shine of those last two titles loses its lustre when juxtaposed with the continued success of boring Tim Duncan and his team first public persona.
Kobe’s still a favourite son of the Laker’s faithful but the messianic glow that he once emitted throughout the league has now faded.
Column inches once devoted to lauding his late game achievements are now replaced with analysis showing a career of passing up good shots for good looking shots.
Praise laden narratives of his desire to win are now replaced with borderline muck raking pieces aimed at highlighting his desire to be seen as the reason a team wins.
While a small part of me breathes a sigh of relief that rational thought has finally broken down, a deification which was the result of selective memory, I have to wonder did we become some so singularly focused on disproving the myth that all we’ve done is create a brand new one in its place?
Have I moved from the position of Kobe hater to apologist despite not actually changing my view on his ability?
I do not believe Kobe Bryant is a top eight player of all time, but he’s still a top 20 player. And any time you get to experience a player who was in the top 20 at playing a highly competitive professional sport it should be something which, on balance, is looked back on in fondness.
While the stats now paint the picture of Kobe’s previously lauded thirst for the final shot being detrimental, there are more than enough stats that also say having Kobe Bryant on your team for the rest of the game was a pretty huge advantage.
While, yes, he ran the potentially most dominant player in the league out of town to get the lead role in the Lakers ballet and then demanded a trade due to the poor quality of his team mates, he also was good enough to be a two-time finals MVP winner and sidekick in helping the Shaq-led Lakers win three titles before he left.
Kobe, by any measure, is a truly elite player on the landscape of the NBA. Sure he has some obvious warts to his game that offset his basketball gifts but when you look back on his resume he is by no means the one trick pony gunner that we are now painting him as.
So Kobe, thanks for being great, even if you’re not in the running for the greatest.