- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

The love is often absent around Kobe Bryant.
There is something about him that rubs the fault-finding basketball intelligentsia the wrong way.
Bryant takes the occasional low-percentage shot, and it seems he rarely makes those around him better, and do you see how he sometimes mimics some of Michael Jordan's mannerisms?
He is so young to be having all this success, a mere 24 years old, and he appears impervious to it all.
Maybe he is too cool for his own good. Maybe that is the thing with Bryant. He is just too cool, too self-assured, full of himself.
The game is not that easy, no matter how many times he makes it look easy. Look, Bryant is barely sweating, smiling to himself. He just pulled up and hit another 3-pointer in someone's face. Now he is backpedaling down the court, blowing the air around him, pretending to be cooling himself down. The darn guy.
His features are so clean, his English impeccable. He speaks Italian, too. He probably still carries around that silver spoon from when he was born. Where are the tattoos? Where is the inner rage, the conspiracy theory with the Los Angeles Police Department? Throw us a bone: an unregistered handgun, a high-priced call girl, a traffic violation, something. Be real.
No, Bryant is not down with the hip-hop culture. His world was fashioned by a father who was an NBA player. It was a high quality of life. It was an education. It shows. Some call it being aloof.
In that regard, Bryant shares a bond with Grant Hill, another son of a former professional athlete who has a keen mind. Hill is such a good guy, and good for the game, and yet, the game is taunting him now, telling him that he never will be what he possibly could have been.
America likes a little adversity in the profile of an athlete. America wants to hug the athlete who overcame a busted home or the mean streets or some common human condition. These are prevalent story lines in professional sports, rising to cliche form. The streets are invariably mean, not rough, and there are dead friends in the past, and dead grandmothers, plus the bathtub that provided cover from the gunfire.
There is none of that with Bryant, no hint of a struggle at all.
Back in the spring of 1996, he stepped up to the podium at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia and said he was ready to take his game to the NBA. It was hard to suppress a snicker. Who was this brash kid, dressed like a pro on the day of the announcement?
The kid was taken 13th in the NBA Draft by the Hornets, which led to the trade with the Lakers that broke some fundamental rules. By dispatching Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant, Jerry West relinquished an accomplished center for a perimeter player just out of high school.
Then as now, Bryant did it his way. His first season ended with air balls against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs. What was he thinking? Better yet, what was coach Del Harris thinking? The scene might as well have been carried out to the accompaniment of a crooning Frank Sinatra.
Well, it all worked out in the end, wouldn't you say?
Of course, there was some gnashing of teeth along the way, adolescent stuff, some of it orchestrated by the mind-control tactics of the Zen master and some of it emanating from the uneasy alliance between Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant in the beginning.
Whose fire hydrant was it? You remember that one. O'Neal and Bryant each wanted to be the biggest dog in the neighborhood, and it took time for both to realize that it was best to do their business on the other 28 fire hydrants in the NBA.
That was three NBA championships ago, so long ago, not at all relevant to the challenge before the Lakers this season.
O'Neal is hurting with a bum big toe and knee, Robert Horry is beat-up, Rick Fox is showing his age, and Derek Fisher is as limited as ever. The team's bench is guilty of nonsupport on many nights.
Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak and the Zen master are guilty as well, of standing pat the last few seasons, of thinking that as long as they have the two best players in the NBA, all would be well in their garden.
Even O'Neal shares in the guilt. He waited far too long in the offseason to address his big toe, and he has failed to see a relation between his massive size and the stress it places on his lower body parts.
That leaves Bryant, and he is showing the strain in his knees at the moment. He has lugged around the Lakers the last 11 games, averaging 42.8 points in that span, holding together a team that is fraying badly, that was reduced to the towel-waving Mark Madsen in the pivot after Samaki Walker left the game with the Jazz Wednesday night with a sprained ankle. The Lakers won the game, incidentally, behind Bryant's 40 points, one night after he dumped 52 points on the Rockets in a double-overtime victory.
Bryant is at his own singular level, almost too good too soon to be fully appreciated.
The MVP talk finally has started in connection to Bryant, although it is somewhat faint because of the Lakers' 28-25 record.
MVP or not, Bryant is the best there is in the NBA, excluding the uniqueness of O'Neal, when healthy.
There is no other choice. Tracy McGrady? No. He earns a free pass in the media because of the mediocrity in his midst. His defensive deficiencies and one-on-one proclivities never will be put to the test until the team becomes a genuine championship contender. Tim Duncan? No. He is still a dependent player, and in his case dependent on the continued maturation of point guard Tony Parker. Dirk Nowitzki? No again. It is true that Nowitzki has ascended to the elite level in almost an instant and, in his way, is every bit the freak that O'Neal is, only he is a 7-footer who shoots 3-pointers and beats defenders off the dribble.
Kevin Garnett? One last no. There is a nexus between Garnett and Bryant. The basketball intelligentsia have been as unduly hard on Garnett as Bryant at times, as if Garnett could control Stephon Marbury's ego, the physical deterioration of Terrell Brandon and Kevin McHale's illegal contract with Joe Smith.
Here's how it works with the two: Bryant shoots too much at crunch time, and Garnett does not shoot enough at crunch time. Got that? Good.
Bryant needs to stay within the parameters of the triangle offense in order to get Devean George a couple of open looks a game. This was the beauty of Jordan with the Bulls, wasn't it? As the fairytale goes, Jordan was all about getting Jud Buechler a couple of open looks each game.
Last year, the NBA community booed Bryant as he held his MVP trophy aloft following the All-Star Game in Philadelphia, his hometown. The basketball intelligentsia have rolled their eyes on occasion this season, often in relation to Bryant's shot totals.
Doesn't he get it yet? He has to find a way to improve Walker's hand-eye coordination and help Fox feel younger. He has to make his teammates better.
Oh, shut-up. Bryant is the best. End of discussion.

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