Kobe’s fury: blessing and curse

The most excruciating truth is Kobe Bryant(notes) is so much smarter, so much more aware, so much more eloquent. His temper is relentless and too often it overcomes his better judgment. This gets him unnecessary technical fouls, and finally something far, far worse: “Hey Bennie!” he screamed to official Bennie Adams, and there was no chance – no way – that director would let the camera shot leave Kobe now. He yelled at the referee and something regrettable promised to come tumbling out of his mouth and into living rooms.

The expletives followed, and your stomach drops there. What makes that kind of homophobic slur so much harder to hear is when it comes from someone who understands the social implications, the ramifications. He’s Kobe Bryant and the television lenses never leave him.

At 32 years old, Kobe Bryant needs one more title to match Michael Jordan's six.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

As the playoffs start on Saturday, Bryant and the Lakers are still the most compelling storyline in the tournament. As Phil Jackson goes for his 12th title in his final season as coach, Bryant chases Michael Jordan and a sixth championship. There will never be another Jordan, but Kobe has been the closest the sport’s come to him.

In so many ways, there’s no catching Michael. In this way, the mark of championships, there’s a way to match him. Bryant wants it badly because it will separate him for the ages. LeBron James(notes) is a forever talent, but it’s hard to believe he can still win six titles.

Bryant’s 32 years old, and that simmering rage within him is still such a blessing and curse in his basketball life. He should be past these moments of temporary insanity, past the needless technical fouls and the brief windows within games when his emotions rule him. It hurts the Lakers on the court, it hurts him. He’s comes too far out of his tumultuous 20s and into what’s been a second act as a thirty-something NBA superstar to regress now.

Back in November, Bryant talked to me about reconstructing his life, his image, in the post-trial and post-Shaq period of his mid-20s. “I don’t want to be known for something that I’m not,” he said. “If you’re going to take shots at me, then get to know me – who I truly am outside the game of basketball. Then take your shots. I’ve got to give you something that’s a part of me – not just something that you’ve heard from Shaq.”

People always say Bryant doesn’t care what people think of him, but of course he does. No one lives that way. He does care. He cares what his daughters hear about him, the way every public parent cares about the way his image is shaped. After issuing an apology statement that was missing one thing on Wednesday – an apology – Bryant was much, much more contrite when he spoke in a radio interview. He talked about owning his words, about taking accountability. The NBA fined him $100,000, but that isn’t the steepest price he pays on this matter.

[Ball Don’t Lie: No excuses, Kobe]

This was an embarrassment for Bryant, but it could be a sobering call for the playoffs, a reminder that his emotions, his temper can derail him. The NBA championship still goes through Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, a thirty-something superstar chasing his sixth title and Jordan, yes, but he’s ultimately chasing something bigger in these playoffs: control of his own imperfections. That rage welling within him has forever been a blessing and curse. It makes him the greatest player of his time, the best of the post-Jordan NBA, and yet when that temper rules Bryant, it leaves such unwanted and unneeded consequences.

Bryant is so smart, so calculated, superior in so many ways to those he regularly crushes this time of year. And here’s the most incredible part: He’s 32, a five-time champion, an MVP and still Kobe Bryant can be better. Only everything is counting on it.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 14, 2011