Monday, June 2, 2008

A Glass Ceiling

The celebrity of athletes is a unique phenomenon. Few other occupations that command notoriety do so on such a meritocratic basis. Actors need not be accomplished thespians in order to acquire the adoration of fans or the endless pursuit of paparazzi. Politicians can be unthoughtful, inarticulate and ineffective while receiving the votes of millions. Contemporary music often sounds like the moans of a dying sow and that has hardly stemmed the tides of fame. Athletes, on the other hand, are unquestionably very good at what they do. Even garbage time players are amongst the top 500 or so basketball players in the world. A variety of factors go into producing the celebrity-athlete, but it must begin with talent.

Posters of Tim Duncan hang on few walls outside of central Texas. However dominant he may be, his stoicism endears him to few. Alternately, as a boy growing up in Austin I had a Michael Jordan poster on my wall, even though I could care little about the Chicago Bulls. Jordan's aura was expansive and his public reputation, despite the reality of his private shortcomings, was well maintained. So clearly to act as if personality relates little to fame (or more accurately, to marketability) is disingenuous. But unlike other occupations prone to the limelight, great athletes assert their presence rather than rely on the dubious charity of opinion makers.

The celebrity of Kobe Bean Bryant, despite his meteoric skill, remains more elusive. Few who know basketball would argue that Kobe Bryant is not the best player in the world. His control over the game seems just shy of total. When the ball leaves the hands of many players I hungrily anticipate the flexion of the net as the ball slides through, but I don't assume it. When Kobe let's it fly, I am continually caught off guard if he doesn't score. I stop just shy of asking myself whether or not he chose to miss the shot on purpose- could he actually be crafting some hidden storyline that would allow his heroism to reveal itself all the more brilliantly?

But then again, Kobe is hardly a hero. It’s not even clear to me he is universally respected. Jordan is both, and Duncan, although hardly loved, is widely regarded as the best power forward in the history of the game. But Kobe, despite the countless times we have witnessed the imposition of his will on the opposing team, often lurks in the shadows of true adoration.

For years the most damning critique of Kobe lied at the crossroads of morality and basketball: He's arrogant and selfish and although he may score he makes his team worse. Many have seen this season as some great moral awakening for Kobe, as he has learned to "trust" his teammates and subsequently made progress not just as a player but as a human being. Others would argue, not wholly inaccurately, that a combination of successful PR and the addition of some competent teammates have made it possible for Kobe to pass the ball more often, creating the illusion he has made some socio-emotional leap forward when in actuality he’s just being savvy.

As Kobe approaches a possible fourth title, and seems poised to win others in the upcoming years, it strikes me as odd that such a prodigious talent remains such a partisan figure. But in order to be honest about his stilted celebrity, we have to be honest about the nature of his game: he is the most Jordan-esque player since Jordan.

It’s not merely that he is the first player since Jordan who has an opportunity to win the MVP award, an NBA Title, and an Olympic Gold Medal in the same year (although obviously that is worth noting). His floor style is as evocative of MJ as anyone’s has ever been. His combination of elasticity and control around the basket. The seemingly endless variety of ways he can create space to get an open mid-range look. His ability to muster unwavering focus and still actual casual. The man changed his number from 8 to 24, a gesture that has more than a little symbolic significance.

But maybe that was the curse of the “next Jordan.” Where Jordan’s shortcomings were whitewashed in pursuit of the ultimate advertising tool, Kobe’s every wrinkle has been excavated in an attempt to prove (or disprove) the authenticity of such a weighty prediction. Although, like Jordan, his off-the-court troubles have been easily forgotten. The fact that Kobe was on trial for rape seems a distant memory at this point. The fact that he is a notorious womanizer has received some traction recently, but that little blemish will fade even faster.

But, given the unique nature of athletic celebrity, he has been continuously interrogated for how he handles himself on the hardwood. It seems to me that comparisons to Jordan thrust him upward right into a glass ceiling. Prophesying his “next-ness” both centered our attention on him and put him in a position where his every shortcoming would be seen as a reason the comparison is illegitimate. Could you genuinely argue Jordan was any less selfish or any less arrogant? Could you argue Jordan’s off-court issues were any less problematic (to be fair, being accused of rape is more severe than having a gambling problem)?

The other dynamic to this whole comparison is the brand of Jordan. Kobe, partially driven by the events of Colorado, has made a much less memorable mark on the world of advertising. Although Jordan (or Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods) is seen as a little campy because of his whole-hearted embrace of the consumer-side of sports, the reservoir of positive PR he received because of his commercialization will never run dry. Whether it was Kobe himself or the corporate apparatus, somewhere along the way someone decided Bryant was unfit to tell us which razors to buy, which credit card to use, which sports drink to re-energize ourselves with. A deficit of smiling portraits of Kobe has cost him an immeasurable amount of credibility with middle-class America. The recent success of viral advertising featuring Kobe hardly makes up for an entire decade in which he could have been playing horse with Steve Nash for a Big Mac.

I don’t think Kobe has legitimately reached the level as a player where he can be compared to Jordan as an equal rather than as a potentiality. But one has to wonder what type of on-court theatrics it will take for Kobe to get there, or whether such theatrics even exist.

UPDATE: This post from the gentlemen at Antwonomous is rather relevant.

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