Kobe Bryant captivates, inspires and repels as few athletes can. His absence will be a bummer.For a couple of hot seasons, LeBron James was the most polarizing athlete in sports. We've documented the causes ad nauseam, so no need to do so again. The most violent tides have receded, and when we look back at James' career at some point in the future, the rancor surrounding him between 2010 and 2012 likely will be regarded as a relatively brief dalliance with rage over the course of a monumental career. "The Decision" and the 2010-11 season certainly will be a prominent display in the official LeBron James retrospective, but I suspect it will be more incidental than we imagine now.
The generation's true enduring polarizer among hard-core NBA fans has been Kobe Bryant. However broad his appeal has been globally (if you want an illustration of this, visit China, where the five most popular NBA players are Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, Kobe and Yao), Bryant's persona among NBA fans in North America has always been wildly disparate. The legion of Kobe defenders is as rabid an individual fan base as there is in professional sports over the long term. Tim Tebow has held the No. 1 spot on the charts, but that's calmed.
The factions in the fan universe that love and loathe Kobe have been waging an endless war, one that has navigated his clash with Shaquille O'Neal, an event that first prompted many fans to choose a side. The Colorado rape case made him a crossover public figure, and now people who had seen few, if any, of his on-court exploits could offer commentary on Bryant, the human being. The mysterious Game 7 performance against Phoenix in the 2006 postseason, in which Bryant refused to shoot the ball down the stretch, added to the intrigue. Many regarded his behavior as repugnant, a confirmation that Bryant, despite his unyielding commitment to his craft and his catalog of wonders, was fundamentally selfish, a solipsist with little self-awareness in a team game, a guy out for himself.
There was the "ship his ass out" Bynum business, trading barbs in the media with marginal former teammates and other fodder for those with no love for Bryant. The past few years, analytics have gained traction in popular NBA debates. Empirical-minded critics produced hard evidence that Kobe's reputation as a clutch assassin was overblown. In this same recent period, Bryant fashioned a blunt candor, expressing on a regular -- even daily -- basis the kind of sentiments usually conveyed by older, crankier folks. The message has been clear: I really don't have much more to prove in this game, so why harness myself with a filter? What possible harm can the truth exact?
So for every count-the-rings loyalist, there are those who can't stand what they see as narcissism and a self-regard so shameless that it practically invites an emotional investment in the guy's failure. Not every Kobe skeptic's feelings are that strong, but it's safe to say there are a ton of people sitting in front of their screens and monitors, hoping the guy goes 0-for-5 down the stretch of a tight game.
When Bryant fell to the Staples Center floor Friday night in the fourth quarter, and it soon became evident that he ruptured an Achilles tendon, a profound sadness set in -- even among most of those who root against Bryant. A severe injury is not the kind of failure fair partisans want to witness an opponent suffer.
Bryant might offend, but he never withholds. The theater of NBA Basketball can't achieve its full potential without intensity, and Bryant has generated more of it than anyone in the game over the past 15 years. Championships, awards and recognition have rightly followed. While Bryant is in rehab -- and ultimately when he's gone -- we'll be deprived of all that, no matter where we stand on the Kobe continuum. Because even if you reside at the revulsion end, the origin of those judgments lies with him. Kobe makes you feel, as any exceptional performer or artist should. And that warrants our empathy.
Basketball is better when its most ambitious talents are on the floor to test the game's limits. Bryant has never stopped trying to stretch the boundaries of possibility. The Hero Ball, legitimacy of the myth-busting and self-absorption don't negate that. Bryant's body of work can still be the subject of examination and debate, but appreciation for mastery should always exceed any personal failings. This instinct allows us to fulfill one of basketball's cooler missions -- the collective celebration of the sport.