“Leadership: the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower
This week while I watched the Lakers’ opener, I was very unsurprised to find that Kobe Bryant was being booed. Kobe’s off-season included a very public trade demand, a leaked video of him trashing the Lakers’ management, and a terrible music video with Tyra Banks.
Nope wait, that last one was some time ago. But he still deserves to be booed for it.
What Kobe doesn’t deserved to be booed for are his contributions on the basketball court. He is hands down the best all-around player in the NBA, which means he is the best living basketball player on the planet. How many people can (pretty unarguably) state that they are the best at what they do? Him, Federer and Tiger? Outside of sports, it’s pretty hard to measure.
Chuck Klosterman made a pretty important point about the NBA in his most recent Page 2 article: namely, the NBA is never as good as we’d want it to be because it’s never as good as we think it should be. Let’s explore that for a moment.
We want the NBA to be exciting. We want the outcomes of the games to matter to the players, for rivalries to form, for the regular season to be meaningful. That is to say, basketball is not the ballet: you’re not necessarily there to see the human body performing at its highest level (although that’s certainly part of it), but to see what happens when these bodies compete and struggle, when there is a clash of wills and ability played out in a structured, competitive environment. (Incidentally, this is why I prefer college basketball to the pros: even though the talent level is incredibly higher at the pro-level, the meaning behind the competition is much greater for the college game.
The endemic problem with the NBA is just what Klosterman identifies: the season is too long to give any one game significance (as is the case in football); the back-and-forth scoring dynamic too monotonous to rev up the intensity of the environment (which soccer and baseball enjoy); and the players too highly paid and contractually insured to demand full intensity on any given night (hence the comparative appeal to the college game).
For its part, the NBA tries to fix structural and systemic problems with a polish and luster that smears lipstick all over its own snout. It tries to engage its White audience by making its employees dress more “suitable” for a business environment. It hypes up the “entertainment” value of its product by promoting individual players over their teams. By creating video montages and all-star festivities centered around high-flying dunks and breath-taking displays of athleticism.
Again, those are the things offered by the circus, by the ballet. I can watch SportsCenter to see the highlights. What I want out of the NBA, what compels me to watch the game, is its competition.
Which brings us back to Kobe.
Kobe Bryant is a competitor. He is a leader. He is a cocky ass-hole, assuredly, but he is a leader.
Different contexts require different leadership positions. Previously this week I posted a clip of Alec Baldwin (the greatest actor of all time!) undercutting the confidence of a group of salesman by pulling the alpha male “brass balls” leadership technique. In a cut-throat industry like sales, where you “f*ck or walk,” it’s important that the employees be constantly challenged, constantly pushed. Their salaries are too good to incentivize their work ethic in any other way. That is to say, when you’re making a good living (and basketball players make millions for working 9 months out of the year), it’s easy to become complacent and push yourself short of your potential.
Kobe Bryant has brass balls. He is Alec Baldwin, undermining the confidence of his teammates, expecting them to expect more from themselves. He drives an $80,000 BMW (in 1980 dollars) and has a gold Rolex that costs more than what some of his teammates (ahem, Jordan Farmar) make in a year. And he is pulling all the strings he has available to him to make himself and his situation successful. He is pushing the buttons of management (who are also easily complacent with a financially viable and successful franchise living off the laurels of its tradition and market)… and he’s doing all of this without giving a flying you-know-what about what sports writers think of him.
Billy Crystal (paraphrased) said that a Jewish boy’s true Barmitzvah is the day he realizes he’s more likely to own an NBA franchise than ever play for one. The same could be said of a sports writer. He is a fan first, and a journalist second. Sports writers want their stars to be good guys, to be the heroes they idealized growing up. And there is a strong degree of cynicism when the writers realize that some of these alpha male competitors are Alec Baldwin ass-holes. So they openly begrudge the players for being “selfish,” for being “bad character guys.” They likewise chastise coaches perceived to be “too tough” on NBA players, who do not respond well to the expectation of self-discipline, hard-work, commitment, etc.
Kobe Bryant certainly could rest on the laurels of his previous 3 titles. He could certainly flash his boyish grin and be friendly with the media. He could play the rest of his career as the best player on a mediocre team, he could garner scoring titles and lavish shoe contracts, and he could secure a legacy in the pantheon of the greats. But Kobe doesn’t want to be one of the greats. He wants to be Ali. He wants to supplant Jordan. He wants to be the greatest.
So why do we begrudge him for it?