I'm a pro-Kobe guy.
His personal adventures in Colorado aside, I like the way he's evolved. Back in the days when he shared the court with Shaq, he didn't seem like he had any sense of himself as a player. It was MJ impressions, 24-7, with a recurring side of petulance.
When Shaq headed East, a buddy of mine -- who hates KB -- and I debated Bryant's future. He thought Kobe would basically disappear into NBA history as an egomaniac who was a nice scorer, and had the benefit of playing with the Diesel. I predicted a few years of pain ahead, during which KB would do his best Allen Iverson impression before realizing that, like AI, he was just a great player on a mediocre team.
But ultimately, I thought that Kobe would see the light -- the sort of light you only get gleaming off the NBA championship trophy. Kobe, if nothing else, is the ultimate competitor; he hates losing the way a meat lover hates tofu. He can't stomach it. When it came to choosing between a scoring title and winning more championships, I believed that Bryant would do whatever it took, even if it meant -- picture KB in full body cringe -- becoming a good teammate, a leader, etc.
Looking at the big persona improvement picture, I have to say, I think I'm right. Which is why it makes incidents like Kobe's post-game diss of Gilbert Arenas this past Sunday all the more disappointing, to put it one of many possible ways.
If you didn't hear it, it's unsurprising. Kobe's comments were only partially quoted in the Times. [See update below.] And with everything else that's happened in the NBA this week (Allen Iverson to the Nuggets, and the Great Madison Square Garden Fisticuffs Hodown), Bryant on Arenas faded into the background.
Here's the setup. The Wizards beat the Lakers Sunday in overtime, led by 60 points for Washington's star, Gilberto (who hails from Van Nuys). I'll let the Washington Post take it from there.
No one stood ahead of Arenas on Sunday night, not even Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who was coming off a 53-point performance in a win over Houston on Friday night and is responsible for the king of all scoring binges in recent NBA history: an 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors last season.
After Arenas scored 29 points through three quarters and helped the Wizards build a 17-point lead in the fourth, Bryant dropped into a defensive stance, licked his lips, clapped his hands together and tried to stop Arenas himself.
Arenas scored 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter, including a play in which Arenas curled around a screen and made a difficult jumper over Bryant while drawing a foul on the incredulous Lakers star -- whose 45-point, 10-assist, 8-rebound performance was overshadowed.
After Arenas missed a potential game-winning jumper over Bryant at the end of regulation, he set an NBA record by scoring 16 points in overtime. The frustration of watching Arenas have his way with the Lakers poured out of Bryant during the game as he repeatedly pleaded with the referees.
Afterward, his assessment of Arenas's performance was less than magnanimous. "You tip your hat and say: 'See you next time,' " Bryant said. "First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that. But him individually, it's funny. He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those shots and they're just terrible shots.
"You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time."
Arenas idolized Bryant as a high school player. He has a DVD of Bryant's 81-point game and nearly wore it out in the days following the performance last season, and his comments about Bryant always laced with a respect bordering on reverence.
When a few Wizards sat around the locker room holding an informal discussion earlier this season, Arenas ranked Bryant as the best player in the league.
The two had no communication during Sunday's game.
"I'm not a trash talker and he really doesn't talk trash," Arenas said. "He just goes out there and plays. A guy who comes off an injury and to do what he does, it's unbelievable."
Two steps forward, one step back.
* Update: Oops. After reading through several articles written by Times sportswriters, I followed a link to a story entitled, “Arenas Torches Lakers for 60 Points,” assuming that it had been written by someone with the Times. Had I looked more carefully, however, I would have realized that I had, in fact, gone to an game story posted by the AP on the Times’ site. The Lakers story by the Times beat reporter, Mike Bresnahan -- “This 60 is Over the Lakers Limit” -- posted Bryant’s quotes in full.
I wasn’t looking to criticize the Times’ beat reporting, which is quite good; I was simply surprised that the article I was reading only had a shortened version of Bryant’s remarks. Now I know why.