Shoot for It: With John Beneville ’16 and Alex Lee ’16

by John Beneville and Alex Lee | 11/12/15 7:30pm

Hello Dartmouth basketball fans! Shoot for it boys back again for our final column of the term. Thank you so much for putting up with our basketball “analysis.” We thought it’d be fitting to discuss Kobe Bryant’s retirement rumors this week.

This may possibly be Kobe Bryant’s final season in the NBA. The 6’6” shooting guard has put together an impressive resume over the past 20 years, highlighted by five championships, two Finals MVPs and a regular season MVP.

But to say that this year has been a struggle for the Black Mamba is a massive understatement. The 37-year-old Bryant has averaged 16.5 ppg on .320 shooting from the field, a far cry from his 25.3 ppg and .451 career averages. Moreover, he’s sat out the past two games with back soreness. The 1-7 Lakers look hardly improved from their abysmal state last year, and sports analysts, players and fans alike have been speculating whether this year is the Mamba’s final hurrah.

Alex’s Take: I’ve never liked Kobe Bryant. His basketball accomplishments have been tremendous to say the least, but his character as a person and a teammate have been irreconcilable to me.

In my mind, the relationship between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant summarizes the shortcomings of Kobe’s character. Together they won three championships, after each of which Shaq was awarded Finals MVP. You would think that this would build an unbreakable brotherly bond between the two, similar to the one that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade share now, but this was very far from the case. The ’03-’04 season brought significant locker room turmoil. In an interview with ESPN, Bryant called O’Neal “fat and out of shape,” questioned the extent of his injury and criticized Shaq’s max contract efforts. Eventually, all of this vitriol led to O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat during the offseason, and perhaps more significantly all-time great coach Phil Jackson also leaving the purple and gold.

Some say that at that point in career, Shaq was on the decline. Clearly, however, he had some juice left in the tank since he and Wade led Miami its first championship in the 2005-2006 season.

Yet, Bryant’s off the court troubles were not a one-time incident. Kobe essentially also ran Dwight Howard out of Los Angeles, with Howard eventually taking less money to play with the Houston Rockets. Dwight was supposed to be the centerpiece of the prestigious Los Angeles Lakers, but he couldn’t handle Kobe’s ego so he left after one season. The 2013 Lakers boasted a starting lineup of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, yet the team struggled all season long and was eventually swept by the Spurs in the first round.

Yet, it seems that this has been Bryant’s way of life. Bryant said in a 2015 interview with GQ that he would never be a “great friend,” and seems proud of that fact. Is that the kind of person and player we should look up to? Is that someone who we want to celebrate?

In my mind, Kobe Bryant is a great individual scorer who falls short in his capacity as a great basketball player, both in his leadership and playing style.

To see what a true NBA great looks like, take five-time champion Tim Duncan for example, who is 39 years old and still contributing significant basketball play to his team. Most importantly, though, he is acting as a leader and mentor to the Spurs’ younger players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, who will feel his positive influence for years to come. Players like Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki will continue to stay relevant into their elder years and beyond retirement because of the imprint they leave on their teammates, while Kobe Bryant has done very little to mentor the Laker youth, and in fact has often been a very toxic locker room presence.

Ultimately, it seems more likely than not that this will indeed be Kobe’s final season. A Derek Jeter-esque goodbye tour has already begun, but I certainly won’t be taking part in the ceremonies.

John’s Take: Alex’s “analysis” is the most ridiculous collection of misguided opinions, errant judgements and untruths that I have ever encountered. Let’s take Alex’s criticisms one-by-one so that we can set the record straight. “Ran Dwight Howard out of L.A.?” Are you serious? Lakers fans quickly recognized that Dwight Howard did not have the will or the grit necessary to win a championship, as did Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard is as overrated as he is soft and left L.A. because his happy go-lucky, “I’m a champion even if I don’t win championships,” attitude didn’t mesh with the Lakers organization. Dwight has continued to fail to accomplish anything in the NBA since leaving the Lakers, who I’m sure told Dwight to make sure the door didn’t hit him on the way out.

Alex is correct that the team with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash should have won a championship had they been healthy. Perhaps Alex forgot that the expected starting five played less than a dozen regular season games together. Perhaps he forgot that Steve Nash has the physical fortitude of a nursing home resident. Perhaps he forgot that Kobe Bryant single-handedly willed the Lakers into the playoffs that years while the other stars were injured and nursing their bad backs. Kobe Bryant gave his Achilles for his team that year, and yes, he’s never been the same since. But to ignore the fact that Kobe was one of the top five players in the league that year, at his age, after all those minutes, is sacrilege.

Alex then goes on to take a Kobe Bryant quote out of context, a context which actually involved the five-time champion lamenting the fact that he could never be a great friend. Human beings like Kobe Bryant operate on another level — their greatness is either revered or feared. I think you know which camps Alex and I fall into. Kobe Bryant’s life has been dedicated to basketball, and his personal and social growth always had to take a back seat. Even a cursory look into Bryant’s past would have also led to Alex realizing that Kobe grew up in Italy and was thus immediately isolated when his family moved to America. His faults, like his greatness, are a product of circumstance and not conscious choice.

Is Kobe Bryant struggling this year? Yes. But Alex is using this struggle to submit an absurd line of thinking that someone so smart and knowledgeable should be ashamed to support. Kobe is not just a scorer, he is a student of the game. If Alex was more like Kobe in that regard, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.