The critical piece about Kobe Bryant in ESPN Magazine by HenryAbbott certainly made waves this past week in the basketball world.
In his article, Abbott openly asked whether Bryant has been heavily or even primarily responsible for the Lakers downfall since they last won an NBA title back in 2010. (*Note for people who have difficulty understanding things or those that don't bother to read closely: Abbott did not mean Bryant was the only reason or that management never made any bad decisions.)
While much of the Kobe-critique in the Abbott article was not that different from the prevailing wisdom in many circles of the national media and even in some parts of the Lakers fanbase, it was still viewed as inflammatory because it dared to criticize the legendary Lakers guard so boldly in print. Abbott was openly discussing a particular point of view that has mostly been whispered around the league but rarely stated out loud.
Retaliation was sure to come and it did. Most came from some of Kobe’s rabid fans, many of whom often appear to love Kobe more than they actually love the team. (Andy Kamenetzky has a very interesting article from earlier this year on the Lakers fans vs. Kobe fans phenomena.)
But no less expected was the angry backlash by some in the media and the organization.
Earlier Thursday, Lakers President Jeanie Buss herself got involved by travelling to ESPN's home in Bristol, CT and fiercely defendeding her star player. “I read the story,” Buss acknowledged. “I don’t agree with any of it.”
The fact that the Lakers president, who has strongly backed Kobe in the past – recall both her endorsement of the huge contract extension Bryant received and her strong comments disputing her fiancé Phil Jackson’s opinion that Michael Jordan was better than Kobe Bryant – is no surprise in itself.
The dark language that followed however, was a bit surprising. “If there is somebody that’s on our payroll who is saying things like that, I’ll soon get to the bottom of it, and they won’t be working for us anymore,” proclaimed Buss ominously.
It seems that just about everyone who has worked with Jeanie Buss asserts she has been exceptional in whatever capacity she has served the team over the years and is a uniquely gracious individual. That she would publicly threaten to investigate the matter and chop heads within the organization over some comments in an article reveals just how disturbed she was by the Abbott piece.
It can be argued that such aggressive talk by Jeanie is simply righting the ship, and that she can’t afford to have people within the organization undermining management’s stated position.
But, sadly her language was also eerily consistent with what has been done for years by Kobe supporters within the organization and in the local media – angrily seeking to shut up and ostracize all who dare criticize the Mamba in any way. For the most part it has been almost taboo in Lakerland to talk about the elephant in the room: Kobe Bryant's, at times, toxic personality.
No wonder Abbott’s sources want to be remain unnamed.
The Lakers president actually went even further than merely disagreeing with the article, she also took umbrage with any free agents who may not have wanted to play with Kobe.
“Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser, and I’m glad they wouldn't come to the team,” Buss asserted during an interview on “SportsCenter” earlier today.
I guess that’s helpful. If you don’t want to play on our team because you don’t like one of our players, it’s because you’re a loser!
Former president George W. Bush, speaker of the infamous “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us” and “They hate us for our freedoms” quotes, would be proud of that mentality.
At first blush, Jeanie’s comment about free agents who are “afraid” might seem like a not-so-subtle jab at Dwight Howard. Howard in particular was specifically bashed during his one year stint with the Lakers by the LA media, despite making efforts to speedily return from back surgery, for not being as “dedicated to winning” as Kobe. When Howard chose to sign with the Rockets, many in LA suggested he was a "coward" for doing so.
But it is doubtful Jeanie’s comments were in any way actually referring to Howard, as she was one of his strongest supporters while he was on the Lakers, even admirably admitting after Howard signed with the Rockets, “I think we failed him.”
One can then imagine that Jeanie’s criticism is purely of any hypothetical free agent who was “afraid” of playing with Kobe. Yet even so, Jeanie’s response, like those of many others since the article was written, is misguided and based on a misreading of the article in question.
Abbott's piece asserts that Kobe Bryant's attitude and demeanor, on and off the court, have led to quality free agents not wanting to play for the Lakers anymore.
Actually the charge in the article is worse than that. Not only do top free agents have strong reservations about playing with Kobe, but Kobe himself actively hurts management’s efforts to sign big name free agents. (The examples of Kobe intentionally blowing up the Dwight Howard meeting or his pettiness about calling Steve Nash were particularly damning.)
But are any top free agents really "afraid" of playing with Kobe because they don't want to play with someone so "dedicated to winning," or do they just not like his reputation as a teammate?
Perhaps the real problem is, as the article suggests, that a top free agent might want accountability to go both ways.
Kobe has desired to be the face of the Lakers even before he was on Shaq's level, and has even felt the need to re-proclaim that he is "the leader" when new free agents like Nash and Howard arrive. When times are good, the praise flows for Kobe like there's no tomorrow
Yet when the team fails, Bryant is rarely the one who takes or gets most of the blame. It is almost always the "supporting cast" that feels the wrath of the local media and disappointed fanbase. That pattern is something that the organization and the local media's massive spin efforts haven't been able to completely hide from other NBA players around the league.
Yet still, nobody really likes to talk about that.
In the end, it's hard not see Jeanie Buss comments about free agent "losers" being “afraid” as little more than just another way of sidestepping the "Kobe as teammate" discussion altogether.
by Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com