Toiling for eternity in the pages of Dante's Inferno are dozens of mythical characters enduring timeless punishment for earthly sins, ranging from Sisyphus and his boulder to Tantalus and the vanishing water. If you follow the master's path through hell and look in the right place, perhaps a few circles before you come to Judas Iscariot in the mouth of the devil, you might come across a basketball player, a fallen angel placed in a similar impossible situation.
Watch the player for just a second, and he takes your breath away. The athletic abiltiy is blinding, the basketball acumen staggering. Are there others like him? As good? Possibly, but listen to his story.
At seventeen he defied everyone who knew anything about succeeding in the NBA, and leapt from Lower Marion, Pennsylvania, straight into the abyss of the National Basketball Association. Like Icarus before him, the young prodigy followed his father into the rare air, skipping college basketball altogether. For many, this was the first sign of the apocalypse. Straight outta the suburbs and fluent in Italian, if this boy wasn't going to college, who would?
The ascent to stardom was shockingly steep. His greatness was recognized early on by one of the wise ones, and the boy was plucked from the backwaters of Charlotte and inserted into the glare of Los Angeles, where age ain't nothin' but a number. Seventeen or not, the boy was seen by many as the next great one, heir to the Air's throne.
And then there was the afternoon in Utah when the boy flew too close to the sun and crashed to the earth, pulling his team down with him. Many observers saw this as the beginning of the end, but they couldn't have been more wrong. William Blake once wrote that "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings," and young Kobe Bryant was, indeed, soaring.
The embarassment of those airballs in Utah would fuel Bryant's burning desire to win and ultimately make him a better player, but he really had no idea what he was getting himself into. As fans and media noted with concern the decline and feared the inevitable departure of the great Michael Jordan, they eagerly placed young Kobe next in line. And who wouldn't want to be the Next?
Suddenly Kobe Bryant went about the business of basketball and championships, all the while playing with a sword of Damocles hanging over his head. The press badly wanted him to take the torch from Jordan, but at the same time, they couldn't bear the thought that he actually wanted it. How could this boy pretend to be Jordan's equal when he hadn't won a single championship?
And once the championships started coming -- several years ahead of Michael's schedule, by the way -- the question changed. Wasn't he just standing on the shoulders of a giant? Weren't the Lakers really Shaquille O'Neal's team?
And it was at about this point in the drama that our hero started showing us another side. He was suddenly selfish instead of sublime, petulant instead of precocious, immature instead of impressive. He pouted about his role in the offense, questioned those who suggested he concede leadership to a player who refused to push himself as a great one would, and bristled at the idea that he should dial back his game.
Did he handle himself as he should have at all times? Did he act as a leader should? Did he act professionally? Did he respect his teammates and coaches? Certainly not. But few of us can say we always made the right decisions when we were twenty-three. Prodigy or not, this boy was no different.
And then there was the ultimate fall from grace. Say what you will about the events in Eagle, Colorado, or the trial that ensued, but one thing is for sure. Those months gave us a glimpse of a player so driven, so single-minded, so supremely talented that he could find himself engaged in legal proceedings in the morning, then exorcise his demons by playing with such ferocity in the evening that many suspected he feared the worst. If he had been convicted and that season had been his last, he seemed determined to leave us with a lasting image of his artistry on the basketball court. And maybe he was.
Then came what was, for many, the final indignity. In a massive collision of egos, the boy king emerged victorious over the aging giant and the shrewd coach. Most believed that Kobe had orchestrated the entire process, and when he was finally given the reins to the chariot as Shaquille O'Neal was wisely ushered out the door, most predicted disaster.
Jump forward to 2005-06, and even as Kobe slashed and burned his way through the league, he did so with a fatal flaw clinging to his neck like a giant albatross for all to see. His very name and image, the only currency that matters in a league driven by star power, supercede anything he accomplishes on the court. Everything he does will be criticized, and it's likely that nothing will change that for his entire career.
Remember when he scored 62 points through three quarters against the Mavericks earlier this season, then sat out the fourth because his team had a huge lead? He was roundly criticized -- he should've kept shooting. And then when his team was listless and losing by double digits a few weeks later against Toronto and Kobe responded by dropping 81 points to secure a win? The critics were louder this time. Even Vince Carter, the patron saint of Me First, found time to rail against Kobe's selfishness.
You have to understand all of this to understand what's happened in the wake of the Lakers' recent loss to the Suns in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. There are several different stories going around about what happened in the seventh game, but they're really just different verses of the same song. Perhaps Kobe wanted to prove a point, so he didn't shoot in the second half. Maybe he was afraid of trying and failing. Or, and this is even more damning, maybe he simply gave up.
Now let's look at the facts. This Laker team was picked by almost no one to make the playoffs. As late as February or March, they were in complete disarray and bouncing back and forth between the seventh and tenth spots in the West. Making the postseason as the seventh seed, they advanced to face the second-seeded Phoenix Suns, and they played brilliantly for five games, led by the nonpareil performance of Mr. Bryant.
Certainly, the near-miss in game six and the collapse in game seven were regrettable, but all that really happened was that the Lakers lost four out of seven games (or five out of seven, if you subscribe to Steve Nash's arithmetic) to a superior team. Los Angeles had played far over its head for one reason. Kobe Bryant had willed players like Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, and even Lamar Odom to reach heights they had never in their lives enjoyed. They made open shots, they worked hard on defense, they accepted the challenge jointly laid down by Kobe and Phil Jackson.
If there was one moment that exemplified this new Laker team, one lifted by Bryant rather than carried, it came at the end of regulation in game four. With the game all but lost, the previously lost Parker came up with a miraculous steal and somehow tapped the ball to Bryant. Kobe then raced down the court and tossed in a shot which shook Staples Center and downtown Phoenix to their cores. And then came moment that really mattered. Instead of basking in the glory of his shot, Kobe instead ran straight to Smush, threw his arms around his neck and screamed into his ear, "You're a bad motherfucker! You're a bad motherfucker!" And the interesting thing was that when the rest of the team arrived, they followed Kobe's lead. It was as if Superman were giving Jimmy Olsen credit for saving Lois Lane, and everybody bought it.
Listen to the mainstream media, though, and you hear something completely different. In the game one loss Kobe's performance was called "passive," and when he scored fifty in the game six loss, he was being selfish. Two nights later, when he followed the game plan, correctly realizing that he had to involve his teammates in order to beat the Suns on their own floor, he was giving up.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
And so it will always be with Kobe. Witness the recent results of this year's MVP balloting. Steve Nash is certainly a deserving winner, but Kobe Bryant's fourth place finish is almost mysterious enough to invalidate the entire process. Twenty-two of the 125 voting writers didn't see fit to include him on their five-person ballot.
What are we to make of that? How can we explain these twenty-two writers? There is no answer to this Catch-22. Kobe isn't one of the five best players in the league? There are five guys who did more to elevate their teams? There's obviously more going on here. Kobe's been collecting baggage for almost a decade now, starting with the night in Utah and extending to the darker night in Colorado and beyond, and twenty-two writers apparently aren't willng to let any of that go.
As the Lakers move forward from this recent loss, they'll begin the process of building on the success of this season, and everything they do will correctly revolve around the boy who was once thought to be the Next One. Knowing the young boy's talent and the knowledge of those guiding the organization, it wouldn't be surprizing if another championship came his way before too long.
What would be shocking, though, would be a change in people's perception of Kobe Bryant. As unlikely as a day of rest for Sisyphus or a drink of water for Tantalus. Not even Dante would write an ending like that.