Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kobe, Shaq...fight!

I know I'm a little late on this, but I gotta weigh in...

This Shaq freestyle's gotta be the most ridiculous psuedo-sports story ever. It kicked off the 3 pm Sportscenter Monday afternoon, ESPN treating it as a mix between the JFK assassination and MJ's first retirement. They even had it passing thru the ticker. Poor Shaq had to release a statement assuring everyone that it was all in good fun and apologizing to anyone it offended, but it was too late: that stalwart Arizona sheriff took The Daddy's fake badge away. Consider the Big Pythagorean Theorem Imus'd.

And now, for the first time since their very public split four years ago, Kobe has the people on his side in a situation involving Shaq. For now, anyway. All Kobe has to do is keep his mouth shut and he wins; he'll come out smelling like a rose. While Shaq will be seen as a bitter, washed-up has-been subconsciously and unintentionally letting his insecurites come to light, Kobe will be viewed as the superstar with multiple rings in his future, who was too busy preparing to win a gold medal to stoop to Shaq's level and respond to the big man's childish antics. (Like Kobe would ever make a good PR move. Yeah, right.)

All of this kills me, but one aspect of this whole thing gets me more than anything else. You see, Shaq and Kobe made peace, but the treaty came after they were no longer on the same team. When those two played together it was the most unique situation in the history of basketball: never before had two players that good at the same time shared the same lineup, and unless Dwight and LeBron hook up on the Nets in 2014 we may never see anything like it again. It can't be overstated: Shaq and Kobe were devastating. That's the only word that does them justice. They were a nuclear weapon, the NBA's version of Little Boy, the mushroom cloud hovering over the rest of the league. And neither one of them fully appreciated it. I think Shaq realized what they had more than Kobe did, but he seemed to have a fundamental dislike for Kobe from the very start, and was probably a little jealous of Mamba's popularity, which, at least in the city of Los Angeles, exceeded his. Not to mention the fact that for the majority of their time together, Kobe refused to fall in line and fully accept his role as the second option.

Kobe didn't pay Shaq much mind, for the most part, but he should have accepted a subservient role just because it was better for the team. Other than in 2000 and 2002 (and they played together eight years), Kobe simply didn't do that. He wanted to win then just like he does now, but he also needed to dominate the ball in doing so. The reason Kobe played such team-oriented ball this year was because his teammated were better, yeah, but also because he knows that he's The Man on the Lakers and there's nobody on the team that's going to challenge that. When he played with Shaq, it was almost like he did too much because he was trying to make up for not being Top Dawg. Now, he no longer has that problem. Well, that's my theory, anyway. I'm not a psychologist, so please, feel free to completely disregard it.

Anyways, their inability to reach a compromise on the court (during the regular season of course - during the playoffs they got on the same page and won three championships) led to some genuine, real-life contempt, on a personal level. When Shaq took some subtle, subliminal but meaningful jabs at Kobe in preseason 2004, the Kobester responded with some much more personal, disproportionate overhand rights. The disdain was mutual and it was real; it wasn't just about basketball, they just didn't get along. Then, when Shaq went to the Heat, he launched a crusade against his former teammate that would last for a season and a half before Bill Russell finally got Shaq to bury the hatchett on MLK day 2006, on TNT, during a Miami-LA game at the Staples Center. A month later at the All-Star Game they shared a laugh together on the court like old pals, and there would be no flare-ups in the feud until recently, and of course Shaq swears he and Kobe are cool.

Which brings me to this memo: Shaq, Kobe,'s okay to hate each other now. You're not on the same team anymore. You had a good thing and you blew it: You won three championships together but you should have won six (in 2004 when Kobe wouldn't pass the ball to Shaq against Detroit in the Finals, and the two following years), all because neither one of you took the necessary steps to stay together and finish the job. Why get along now? Kobe, respond. Make a series of anti-Diesel mixtapes like Game did about 50 and G-Unit. Shaq, do another freestyle. And another one after that. Instill some stuff about Kobe being a ballhog into your stream-of-consciousness, for the next time you take the stage. You two should be at each other's throats at all times, consistent and casual verbal assaults and cheapshots. Hell, you should fight. Fisticuffs.

It would only make sense.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Curt Schilling: Equal Parts Jerk and Hall-of-Famer

For the record, I don't really like Curt Schilling.

He's always angling for the spotlight, sticking his nose into places it doesn't belong just so he can be heard from and generally just acting like a schmohawk. Was that sock really bloody or was it just ketchup? I'm sure it was the former, but it says something about Schilling's personality that it is even a discussion.

Schilling says there's a pretty decent chance he's thrown his last pitch, but I'm here to say that there's a 100 percent chance that whenever he retires he's not just going to just go away. He might become a manager, or a (very) outspoken commentator, or whatever, but he's not going to pull a John Stockton and just fade into the sunset. He's never going to let us forget he's still around. He's too annoying to let that happen.

So, in that sense, I'm not the strongest advocate of Curt Schilling. Noted.

But now that it appears his career is over, the question, naturally, is being thrown around: Is he a Hall-of-Famer?

I was listening to one of ESPN's baseball guys (I think it was Olney) this morning and he said that if Schilling got in it would probably be on the 14th or 15th ballot. The 14th or 15th ballot? Seriously? How insane is that? Never mind for a second that it doesn't make any sense for an athlete to get into the Hall-of-Fame on the 15th ballot (what makes a guy Hall-worthy in his 15th year of eligibilty that didn''t make him worth in his first?), and ask yourself one question:

In a big playoff game, what starting pitcher from the past 20 years would you rather have had on the mound than Schilling?

We're talking about a guy with a career postseason record of 10-2, with a 2.23 ERA. In 2001, he teamed up with the Big Unit in Arizona to pretty much singlehandedly slay the three-time defending champion Yankees, starting three of the seven games and allowing only 4 runs in 21 1/3 innings. In the 2004 ALCS with Boston, after he allowed 6 runs in only 3 innings in a Game 1 loss to the Yankees, he bounced back and did his part to force that historic Game 7, giving up a mere 4 hits and a single run over seven strong. Last year, in the ALCS versus Cleveland, he gave up 5 runs on 9 hits in only 4 2/3 action, he took responsibility for a poor performance and manned up in Game 6, six hits and 2 runs over seven innings to force another Game 7 that would lead to another Sox World Series appearance and title.

But because he only has 216 career wins (and to a lesser extent, no Cy Young's), his chances at Cooperstown are considered Borderline at best. I think stats are overrated in all sports, but especially in baseball, where it often seems that raw numbers are the only thing used to determine a person's greatness. If you don't hit one of the milestones (500 homers, 3,000 hits, 300 wins), your case for induction into the Hall is greatly diminished. Well, Schilling has 200+ wins, 3 rings, and the best postseason winning percentage in history. He's the best October pitcher of my lifetime, right ahead of Jack Morris (who should be in the Hall), John Smoltz (who should get in), and Josh Beckett (too early to tell). You were always better off for having him on your team, he always came through when it mattered most, and we'll always remember him.

Isn't that what being a Hall-of-Famer is all about?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kobe, Kobe, Kobe

Poor Kobe. I was gonna wait until the dust settled on last night's massacre before I gave my piece, so I could guage from which angle I would attack it, but who was I kidding: Kobe is ALWAYS the story.

We could talk about the Celtics defense, which cemented itself as historically good with their python-like (or Mamba-like)suffocation of the high-scoring Lakers. We could talk about KG getting Mighty Joe Young off his back, or Little Shuttlesworth hitting 22 3's in the series, or P-Squared going to another level historically, or Doc Rivers putting a sock in Bill Simmons' mouth. We could talk about the Big Three as a whole, how they were brought together to accomplish a specific goal and did it through hard work, unselfishness, and a desperate commitment to winning.

Or we could talk about Phil Jackson getting worked by a speedbag, or the changes the Lakers must make in order to become tougher and better defensively (we have to make a move for Ron Artest).

We'll touch on those things here and there, but ultimately, it's all about Kobe. You know it and I know it.

He was so somber at the postgame press conference last night that you'd have thought he was speaking at a funeral. Other than losing a close family member or something like that, is there anything that could make Kobe more despondent than finally winning his first MVP and getting to the Finals without Shaq, only to see it all blow up in smoke?

Kobe's tone at the podium was that of a man who realizes that until he wins a 'chip without Tom Hanks (Big), he can never even begin to be considered the greatest. And we all know that Kobe is driven by the pursuit of just that. Kobe may not be the most self-aware person on the planet, but he is in touch with his goals and his desired legacy, as well as what he has to do to inherit it. He understands perceptions.

If Kobe weren't as good as he is, this wouldn't be a problem. If he didn't show so many flashes of Jordan, nobody would make the comparison. If he didn't have such rare ability he probably wouldn't have the same aspirarions. But Kobe walks like Jordan, he's picked up a lot of the on-court mannerisms of Jordan, he wanted his own team so he could win titles as The Man like Jordan, he wants to be the G.O.A.T. so he has to surpass Jordan, plus he's got talent and skills like Jordan, so he's judged against Jordan and Jordan alone.

He's held to a higher standard than Kevin McHale and Scottie Pippen, two Hall-of-Fame sidekicks with multiple rings who aren't thought of as top-tier legends.

He's even held to a higher standard than Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain, unequivocal legends of the sport.

He's held to the standard of Air.

Of course, most people don't want anyone to be better than Jordan, especially not Kobe, whom they don't like, anyway, so when he fails they jump all over him. Jordan's team wouldn't have blown a 24-point lead in the Finals. Jordan's team wouldn't have lost an elimination game by 39 points. And so on and so forth.

Maybe if people thought he was a good guy, they'd give him the benefit of the doubt. Kobe didn't play like an MVP this series, but it's not his fault that his No. 2 guy is soft and can't hold onto the ball, or that his No. 3 guy is wildly inconsistent, or that nobody on his team other than Derek Fisher is mentally tough or that his team has no heart or that they play no defense. Of course, everybody thinks he's a phony a-hole. Which brings me to my main point:

I feel sorry for Kobe because this is just one more moment of disappointment in what may just be a star-crossed career, and because I don't think he's just a complete a-hole. Some of the things Kobe has done are indefensible, but for the most part, I don't think he means to hurt anyone. I'm serious. You know how he never seems to be able to avoid controversy, no matter what he does? I don't think he's crazy, just that he had a unique upbringing and is wired a little differently than 99.999% of the athletes out there, and can't help but behave in a certain way. There are certain parts of Kobe's personality that mix together and make people dislike him, but I don't think Kobe bleeds jerk, like, say, Barry Bonds. Yet when he's down he's treated with a similar disdain.

This was supposed to be Kobe's year. Then, just when you thought it was his wasn't. Now it's just another summer for people to bash him. Starting to think his story is destined to be a sad one.

You gotta feel for the guy. Or at least I do.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lakers could use Bynum now more than ever

Let me start off by saying that I fully appreciate what Pau Gasol has done for the Lakers since his arrival here on February 1st. Simply put, he saved the Lakers season. He's a gifted offensive player with a versatile low-post game and excellent passing skills, and the ease with which he picked up the triangle is a testament to his uniquely high basketball IQ (seriously, how many guys could have picked up that famoulsy difficult offense on the fly like that, like they had been playing in it their whole lives?) And even when he plays poorly, he's still making a huge impact, his presence alone allowing the Lakers to function at a championship-level capacity. Without a legitimate low-post presence, someone who shoots a high percentage and gives Kobe a big target down low, these Lakers have proven to be very mediocre. The proof is in the pudding. So whatever you do, don't consider this to be a Pau Gasol diss-article. I'm no ingrate.

It's just that the more Gasol gets roughed up by the Celtics, the more I wonder whether or not the Lakers would be better off right now with Andrew Bynum occupying the pivot instead. In the first three rounds, I didn't think about it as much; Pau played just as flimsily, but the Lakers glided past Denver, Utah, and San Antonio with relative ease, so as much as his sissy play irritated me, I didn't hypothesize. But this Boston team is clearly a bad matchup for the Lakers - Kobe is the only guy that can guard Pierce, the Celtics defend Kobe as well as anyone, and Lamar Odom does NOT present a matchup problem for KG. Now more than ever, the Lakers need Gasol to stand up and be a MAN. And it just ain't in him. He's a finesse player through and through.

Now lets say, just for kicks, that Bynum is in the lineup instead of Gasol, which he would be if he had never gotten hurt. Pau is actually an underrated shotblocker - 2.1 a game this postseason, the same as Andrew was averaging before he came down on Odom's foot that fateful January night. But is Pau Gasol really gonna stop anyone from driving to the basket? Of course not. In Game 2, Leon Powe got the ball at three quarters court and drove right through the Lakers defense, Gasol swiping passively at the ball before watching Powe dunk ferociously. It reminded me of one time when I was in the fifth grade, and I took the ball and went the length of the floor and scored, and my little buddy Deonce said, "You guys just let Anthony Wilson take the ball, go the full court, go left to right, keep his dribble, split the defense, and make a layup." Just like I shouldn't have been able to do that as a 5'4", 125 lb 10 year-old, Leon Powe should not be allowed to look like LeBron James. Even if it meant getting impaled into the padding on the pole of the basket, Pau has got to step in there and at least attempt to stop the play.

No way Bynumite doesn't put a body on Leon Powe on that play. Gasol can't stand physical contact; Bynum, on the other hand, is clearly a little bit crazy and confrontational. He initiated an altercation with Shaq as an 18 year-old rookie, and there's a YouTube clip of a Lakers telecast where he's seen snapping back at Kobe during a timeout. And I mean angrily. He wasn't afraid.

Singlehandedly, Bynum would've shifted the battle in the paint in this series in the Lakers favor. Bynum imposes his size and athleticism on opponents; he dunks everything, and makes them feel hopeless. To paraphrase Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, he executes their souls! He's the kind of real big man that makes other real big men proud. The only person in the league with the mixture of size, athleticism, and attitude to match Andrew down low is Dwight Howard. Kendrick Perkins is a big boy, but he doesn't have the height to stop the long right arm of Bynum from dunking on his head. Kevin is still a beast, but he's not the extra-terrestrial creature he was when he was Da Kid. Bynum, like Howard, is not afraid to bang around and exert his physical superiority. If the Lakers had him right now instead of Gasol, they'd be in a better place.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Kobe Bryant Will Be Better Than Michael Jordan

Bryant is in his old world. We are just the unworthy spectators.

Look. I am tired of trying to compare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. So is Bryant. I do not think Jordan cares.

The problem I have is when those with the newly discovered Jordanclingitis* (as of today) Symptoms include: hallucinations, lack of interest in the present light, and partial vision impairment.

Here is my question. What is wrong with saying that Kobe Bryant can be better than Michael Jordan? The redundant statement of "no one will ever be like Mike" is ridiculous. That is why the world is hopefully progressive. We move on. We appreciate the past, as the future builds from it.

Something a lot of people realize is the Kobe Bryant will be better than Michael Jordan. Bryant has the all around ability to score at will. His ball-handling abilities are great, as well as his ability to facilitate an offense, being a distributor. These qualities put him on top of the NBA, and I am pretty sure the world.

On-the-court is what we need to focus on. Off-the-court actions make people actual living human beings, with flaws. Bryant has had his share of incidents that has led to a loss of endorsements and public scrutiny. As well as Jordan who dealt with a gambling issue here and there. Why no scrutiny for him? It is because many did not want to taint his image. They did not want their "hero" to be tarnished. Nobody had a problem watch Bryant as he began to crumble in the public eye. Nobody wants to accept him.

What happens off-the-court does not matter. We remember Jordan for his game winner against the Utah Jazz, not gambling problems. We do not remember Bryant for Colorado, but for scoring 81 points. If people open their eyes and accept Bryant for what matters (basketball), then more will be open to his greatness.

As Bryant destroy each team in his sights, there is no doubt in my mind that Bryant will exceed Jordan's abilities. Bryant, (as I said before), has the talent to put him above the gods of basketball. We are not talking about Jordan's 6 championships, scoring titles, all team defense selections, etc. We are talking about Bryant being better than Jordan as a pure basketball player; not as a trophy collector. Some of the greatest players do not have rings or barely any at all (Chamberlain, Malone, Stockton, Baylor, etc), but they are still regarded as the games best.

At this moment in time, Bryant is not better than Jordan. However, get ready; he might be already tapping the shoulder of Michael Jordan.

*Treatment includes watching game film of Kobe Bryant in this 2008 playoff season

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kobe can never be like Mike

The more I watch Kobe Bryant rip through the NBA playoffs, the more drawn I become to the idea that he has become a little bit better basketball player than Michael Jordan. If you use your eyes, and you're not wearing Jordan-colored sunglasses, you can see it. But no matter how good Kobe becomes, no matter how many MVP's and championships he finishes with, he'll never achieve the same level of public idolatry that Jordan did. There's no way.

I've been reading excerpts from the late, great, David Halberstam's classic book, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." I don't remember much of Mike's heyday with the Bulls, because I was too young; I remember a little bit of the tail end of his career, but even then I wasn't really into basketball. However, I realize and understand that he transended the game and became a cultural icon. Better than anyone else probably could have, Halberstam puts it into words.

Jordan wasn't just famous; he wan't just famous for a basketball player; he wasn't just famous in some places. Jordan was known everywhere. He remains amongst the recognizble faces in the world, but during the 90's he may have been the most recognizable. What American was more famous than Michael Jordan? As Halberstam points out, Jordan's notoriety was greater "in many distant parts of the globe than the President of the United States or any movie or rock star." Jordan was royalty, and no celebrity was more beloved. Women swooned over him, and men and young boys alike wanted to be just like him.

This was for many reasons. First and foremost, obviously, Jordan was given a unique gift, the gift to play basketball in a way that made him seem inhuman, God-like. There was no restraint on his athletic ability, his game was remarkably skilled and well-rounded, and he could do whatever he wanted on a basketball court at any time. If you irked him, you got 40. If you pissed him off, you got 50. That's man-amongst-men cliche, only Jordan was a guard, 6-6 and slender, not a behemoth like Shaq or Wilt. Halberstam best describes Jordan's athletic talent when he describes him as a "genetic fluke."

But perhaps just as important to the Jordan mystique was the way he represented himself off the court. Jordan was handsome . He was well-spoken and articulate. He was immaculately dressed, stylish suits before and after games, and clean-cut. Spotless. He was charming and charismatic, and mostly non-controversial, because he knew how to use that charm and charisma with the media. You can't control all of these attributes, but you can control some of them, and Jordan realized that a person in his position, a global icon, should carry himself with a certain dignity and grace. This was all part of Jordan's gift. He quietly accepted his position, and embraced it, while still maintaining his nonpartisan position. ("Republican's wear sneakers, too," he once said, the anti-Ali, if you follow me.)

Kobe is just as good-looking and eloquent, and he cleans up just as nicely. And as I said, we've reached the point where he's probably become a better pure basketball player, his handle more malleable, his range and offensive repertoire more deep. But nobody sees Kobe in the same way they seem MJ; Lakers fans like myself always stood behind Kobe, right and wrong and perceived wrong, but off the court I don't see him as having any kind of aura.

On the court, he is a master craftsman, even more so than Michael, but outside of that realm he is, in a sense, just an average guy. He's not cool. Every guy doesn't want to be like him. Women aren't crazy about him. Kids love him unfailingly, but that's becuase they are so innocent.

Michael and his image-makers were able to convince adults that he was perfect, that he could do no wrong; Kobe the person is as imperfect and human as they come. Unlike Michael, he seems just like the rest of us. Actually, because of his high-profile and the frequency with which his mistakes and misgivings become open to the public, he seems even more flawed. If Kobe has mystique, it's of a different kind: he's complicated, he's confusing, nobody understands him and nobody ever will. He's more interesting than mystifying.

People make fun of Kobe. He gave himself the nickname of Mamba, but when bloggers call him that, they're doing it to mock him. Nobody made fun of Michael. Nobody mocked Michael. Everybody loved him too much to do that. Jordan was held in awe.

And still is. And always will be. Kobe, on the other hand, never will be, at least not blindly. And that's why he will never match, let alone surpass, Jordan in the eyes of the public. People will be drinking the MJ Kool-Aid until the end of time, so many years from now, even though Kobe was better, it will never really seem like he was.