This one’s all about Kobe vs. Kobe
His pressed sweatsuit was white, his rumpled mood was black.
Kobe Bryant met the media Wednesday as if he were playing defense against them, shoulders tight, eyes darting, snarl fixed.
First question? Four-word answer.
Question from beat reporter who has been following him for five years? Thirteen-word answer.
Follow-up? Six-word answer.
In this situation, a day before the NBA Finals, the world at the sneakers of the basketball’s gods, LeBron James would have been charming. Dwyane Wade would have been cute. Shaquille O’Neal would have made us howl.
All of them are more easily embraceable and eminently likable than Bryant.
But guess what? None of them are here.
James was everybody’s favorite maturation story, yet he ended the season acting like a 3-year-old.
Wade nearly had as many MVP votes as Bryant, yet he couldn’t even get his team out of the first round.
O’Neal claimed superiority over Bryant last summer in a profane rap song, yet he never set one giant foot in the playoffs.
Of all his rivals real and imagined, Kobe Bryant is the only one left.
“Bottom line, he’s still here,” Lakers assistant Brian Shaw said. “And that means something.”
For the league’s most enigmatic star, that means everything.
It means that, even if you can barely stand to look at him, you’re going to have to watch him.
It means that, while you may not like him, you’re going to have to respect him.
And when all the hyperbole has settled, it means you have to swallow hard and admit that nobody on either team deserves a championship more.
He drives us crazy with inconsistent moods crouching behind a perpetual game face, his desire to be loved constantly clashing with his need to be feared.
He makes us nuts with a shoulder that bears a huge and inexplicable chip that even 13 seasons among loving fans cannot whittle away.
We want to know him, he could forever become an enduring fabric of this city if we knew him, but that door opens only a crack, and only for a moment, before being slammed shut with pursed lips or an angry glare.
“But what you do know, you know,” Shaw said.
We know that no basketball player on the planet has spent the last 12 months as a harder worker, better performer, or stronger leader.
We know that nobody has been better at carrying teams or closing games.
We know that while the Orlando Magic is the official Finals opponent, this series is really about Kobe versus Kobe, and whether he can finally own a moment that is rightfully his.
Said Shaw: “All he has been through in the last year, Kobe is at a point now where he’s really ready for this.”
Acknowledged Bryant: “A helluva year.”
It began last August in Beijing, where everyone wondered whether he could share the basketball and the flag.
Who made the big shots in the final minutes to return the gold medal to the United States? Who else?
It continued in February in the All-Star game, where everyone wondered how he would conduct himself in Shaq’s new hometown.
Who shared the All-Star MVP with Shaq but handled himself far more maturely in every other situation? Who else?
Then came the playoffs, when, every time Bryant has been burdened with a question mark, he has responded with an exclamation point.
First round, after he gets off to a passive start in a Game 3 loss in Utah, he publicly scolds himself, then scores the first 11 points in a Game 4 victory.
Second round, after the Lakers are beat up in the opener against the Houston Rockets, he drops 40 points in a Game 2 victory.
Conference championship round against Denver, Bryant is demeaned when Jerry West says James is a better player, so he scores 15 of the Lakers’ final 23 points in the Game 1 victory.
Funny, but for three weeks, he has publicly detested the comparisons to James, only to see them strangely come true.
Kobe is no LeBron? Turns out, that’s right, because Kobe has never blown off an opponent handshake after losing a series, then blown off the media while forcing his teammates to clean up his mess.
Turns out, James was only a media puppet, while Kobe Bryant is the real thing, right now, his stage, his time, two weeks during which he could win the one award and one distinction that has eluded him.
Three rings, yet no Finals MVPs
Three rings, yet none without Shaq.
If you don’t think his legacy depends on this, then you don’t know the foreboding Los Angeles sports landscape, a place where you are either among the stars or the forgotten.
“It means nothing,” he said when asked whether he’s buying the legacy question.
Don’t buy that answer.
When I asked him if his great season would be wasted in a Finals loss, he said, “In my eyes, yeah.”
I’m buying that one.
He ended Wednesday’s interview session stiffly, coldly, staring straight ahead as he walked off the stage, and sometimes you wish somebody could just tackle him.
Sometimes you wish you could shake Kobe Bryant and tell him to lighten up, chill out, enjoy what he has rightfully earned and allow his city to enjoy it with him.
Even when someone like Spike Lee claims to show the real Bryant, he fails miserably, witness that incredibly dull documentary called “Kobe Doin’ Work.”
The next two weeks offer the chance for a remake, a chance for the star to open himself up both on and off the court, embracing not only a city but an entire nation of sports fans eager to grant him both immortality and humanity.
It’s the chance of a lifetime, maybe the last chance of his lifetime, and here’s hoping that star will finally take advantage of it.
Kobe doin’ forever.