Kobe in Isolation

"I am going to take my talents to the NBA."
Those were the words of a 6 foot 5 inch high school senior named Kobe Bean Bryant in 1996. With sunglasses perched on his forehead, he also casually volunteered the news that pop singer Brandy was going to be his prom date. I remember watching this with my buddy Zeke and busting a gut in laughter.
Zeke turned to me, his mouth filled with corn chips, and said, "This will not end well."

Two geniuses on the couch, chuckling at the nerve of this Kobe person. No way this kid had a chance to make it in the League. No player had ever made the jump from high school to the pros at one of the guard positions. The precious few that had made the high school leap - Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby, Darryl Dawkins, and Kevin Garnett - were all big men. People always said, "You can't teach tall," so big guys were worth the risk. But a guard? Especially one so clearly scrubbed with wicked arrogance would surely be served a comeuppance sandwich.

"This will not end well," seemed like an obvious prediction. If someone runs smiling toward a cliff, it doesn't matter how self-assured they are. What goes up surely must come down.
But Kobe seemed to answer that truism by jumping and just never coming down. He succeeded in making fools of us all. Love him or hate him, Kobe has become a basketball icon, and now the list of players who have gone from high school proms to the hardwood is longer than Manute Bol's long johns.

Kobe taught us that while you can't teach tall, you also can't teach potential. He has been the standard for potential realized. His second year, he started the All-Star game even though he wasn't starting on his own team. His third, fourth, and fifth year saw the Lakers win championships, with Kobe hitting game winning shots in crunch time. He even found time to buy a Pro Team in Italy, feud with Shaquille O'Neal (and live to tell about it) marry a high school senior, and have a child. He accomplished all of this by his 24th birthday and never gave any sign of being young - no goofy smiles or silly tattoos. No stories of clubbing. It was almost like he was hatched - a basketball and marketing brain fully formed, sullenly waiting for his body to catch up.

Kobe may have treated his success as a birthright, but public adoration never strolled arm in arm with his accolades. Instead gray clouds seemed to stalk his every NBA triumph. When he was booed in his "home town" of Philadelphia two years ago, after winning the All-Star game MVP, his eyes narrowed in anger, shame, and then defiance. When he broke Wilt Chamberlain's record this past year for consecutive games scoring at least 40 points, he had to jack up pointless shot after shot in the fourth quarter to the frustration of his teammates so when he finally hit 40, there was not a smile on the bench. Outside of LA, he was the equivalent of the "bad-guy heels" in pro-wrestling, booed even when performing at the highest levels.

Animosity toward Kobe Inc. did not stop in the stands. He has always been friendless in a league built on teamwork. Kobe has for the last several years had a gauntlet of bodyguards around him at all times, a steroid-pumped insulation from human contact and, as he put it, "trouble." Muhammad Ali, an icon before it was a marketing term, never walked with bodyguards, saying with a huge grin, "If I die, it will be among my people."

Kobe surely feels the same except that "his people" are the bodyguards, not Ali's brothers and sisters in city streets from Harlem to Ghana. A large part of this comfort in isolation is Kobe's own life experience. Being the hyper-talented son of a globe trotting basketball player is more than a little off the typical NBA path.
Now, of course, the man who designed his life to stay out of trouble, faces four years to life in a maximum security prison for rape. But no one should plan on starting any "Free Kobe" campaigns. No matter of what happened in that hotel room, Kobe will not be wearing an orange jump suit any time soon. In the words of one observer, "When you're dealing with high-profile cases and super-rich defendants, you get as much justice as you can afford. And Bryant can afford plenty." But Kobe's life, guilty or innocent, is about to get very ugly and very public. Cameras will be allowed in the courtroom. His very private life is forever gone. We all knew Kobe bought his wife a $4 million "I'm sorry" ring last week within minutes of its purchase.

Clearly we are looking at months of events that will make the Jerry Springer show look like MacNeil/Lehrer. Some among us may cackle with glee and others will want to scrub with steel wool but we will all watch.

This cracked carefully constructed image brings me back to the image of the indecently confident teenager, and Zeke's crumb filled statement that "This will not end well."  A crushing moment of clarity is hurtling toward Kobe Bryant that the world doesn't revolve around him; that sullenness isn't maturity; and your best defense vs. life, isn't a cabal of bodyguards, but patience with your weaknesses and a sense of humor.

This will not end well.

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