By Sally Jenkins
Monday, June 4, 2007
You had to feel for Kobe Bryant, sitting around in his gated, solitary life, crying, "What about me?" on the telephone to radio jockeys, while LeBron James proved himself the greater player, not to mention the better man. The ascent of James and the descent of Bryant was a fascinating subtext in the NBA playoffs last week, and it couldn't be more obvious why their careers are going in opposite directions. One guy holds his team together, while the other guy divides his. One guy builds his franchise up. The other guy -- make no mistake about it -- has torn his down.
Bryant is now 28 years old, and he should hope to be LeBron James when he grows up. That was the verdict after watching the 22-year-old James's revelatory, forehead-smacking performance as he carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA Finals. Interestingly, James's scoring was almost ornamentation; his points didn't express the critical totality of his play against the Detroit Pistons over six games. His 48 points in Game 5 was a feat for the ages, but it was his ability to accept less, while raising others up, including young Daniel Gibson, whom he urged to a career high in Game 6, that was the difference in the series.
James is not the most elegant player who ever lived, but he has a pleasing quality called inner grace. He is unselfishness personified. He radiates a kind of integrity because he does something almost nobody does anymore: He takes blame just as easily as he takes credit, and he talks in the plural instead of about himself. "I've always believed in us," James said. All of which makes you want to grab Bryant, point at James and say: "There, see? That's a great player."
There's a language the true greats speak, and you know it when you hear it. It's the language of personal responsibility. James doesn't sulk or accuse others of undermining him when he fails. He just says, "I've got to get better."
The Cavaliers won just 17 games when James was drafted four years ago, but he's never once railed at management for losses, or at his critics for his weaknesses. Instead, he has kept his mouth shut and improved perceptibly each season. The last remaining question about him competitively was whether he could carry a team on his back.
That was answered definitively when he scored 29 of his team's last 30 in Game 5. But anyone who watched the Detroit series will remember it as much for his sword waving, "into the breach" rallying of his teammates, as for his individual heroics. Perhaps the statistic that says the most about James is his career average of 8.3 assists per game in the playoffs -- without being surrounded by A-list talent.
Game 6 was all about handling frustration when he was shut down as a scorer. Blanketed by the Pistons, and just 3 for 11 from the field, he restrained himself and didn't force. Instead, he grabbed 14 rebounds, doled out another eight assists and got himself to the free throw line, formerly an embarrassing weakness, where he sank 14 of 19.
"Everybody keeps asking for more, and he is a willing guy," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "He just keeps giving us more."
While James was giving more, Bryant was demanding more. More attention, more support, more consideration from Lakers management and, finally, a trade. Bryant's performance during this season, in its own way, was every bit as career defining as James's was on the court.
Meantime, the pattern of Bryant's career is now clear: Whenever he is caught looking like the bad guy or perpetrates a controversy, which is often, he cries that he's a victim. The most freakishly talented scorer in the league is, incontrovertibly, a wretched teammate. Consider Bryant's performance in the Lakers' last game of the season, a first-round loss to Phoenix. He shot 13 for 33, with one assist and six turnovers. The Lakers have not won so much as a single playoff series since Bryant became their lone go-to player, after he helped engineer the departure of Shaquille O'Neal in 2004.
What was most striking about Bryant's intrusion on the airwaves during the climactic Cleveland-Detroit finish was just how glowering and dark-hearted he seemed. This was more than just a petulant outburst or another veiled attempt by Bryant to wield his power to fire someone, although it was both of those things. It was really an uncontrolled cry of frustration from someone who seems to have no conscious clue that his problems are internal as well as external.
Bryant has reason to be upset about the state of the Lakers, but there's no question he was a full participant in their destruction as a championship team. His behavior this week proves it. In the course of the week, Bryant suggested the Lakers bring back Jerry West as a consultant, a move that would emasculate General Manager Mitch Kupchak, and went into a rage when the Los Angeles Times quoted a clubhouse source that it was "Bryant's insistence on getting away from Shaquille O'Neal that got them in this mess." Bryant furiously laid the blame on owner Jerry Buss and asked for a trade, saying he has "trust issues" with the team.
The fact is, Bryant fights with everybody. He has had disagreements with teammates Karl Malone and O'Neal. He's fought more subtly with Phil Jackson, Kupchak and Buss. He had an especially seamy disagreement with a young woman in Eagle, Colo., over whether he sexually assaulted her. And he was suspended one game this season for his habit of flagrantly throwing elbows at any opponent who gets the best of him -- to which he responded with cries that he's unfairly persecuted.
The sad thing for Bryant is that, without a personality graft, he may be incapable of experiencing what James has these last couple of games. The obvious devotion to teammates has multiplied James's satisfaction in winning, times five. James is young, so he still has plenty of time to let success corrode him, to become a malcontented narcissist. Bryant is also still young enough to turn the Lakers around and become a constructive influence again.
But until either happens, here is the difference between the two men: People have to play with Bryant; they want to play with James.