While NBA fans focus on the upcoming beginning to the season, baseball fans are right in the thick of the end of their year. With only four teams remaining, one of the biggest stories has been the poor play and benching of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, one of the best hitters in the history of the sport, as well as one of the most widely reviled. In truth, the vast majority of Yankees have been awful, but A-Rod's struggles have gotten the lion's share of media attention.
This qualifies as an NBA story because Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers legend and fellow lightning rod for criticism, counts A-Rod as a friend. He has even called him to lend support and give a useful pep talk. From Ramona Shelburne for ESPNLosAngeles.com:
"We spoke a couple of days ago," Bryant said of Rodriguez, whom he befriended on the set of a commercial a few years ago. "You can only control what you can control. You go out there and do the best job you can. If they take you out of the lineup, it's really on you to be a good teammate and support the other guys, which he's good about doing."
But that's not exactly what Bryant said when he called Rodriguez, who was benched for Game 3 on Tuesday night because he's hit .143 in the ALCS and .130 in the playoffs with no RBIs. No, that conversation went more like this:
"I just say to him, 'You're Alex Rodriguez. You're A-Rod. You're one of the best to ever do it,'" Bryant said. "I think sometimes he kind of forgets that and wants to try to do the right thing all the time. Which is the right team attitude to have. But other times you really have to put your head down and say, 'Hell with it' and just do your thing.
"Hopefully the next game they'll kind of give him a chance, maybe put him back at third and let him respond to the pressure, which I think he'll do." [...]
"We're different," Bryant said. "But you're talking about, 'He's one of the best to ever play.' I think really the difference is, sometimes he forgets he's the best. ... Where, I don't."
This talk sounds nice and thoughtful, but, as is always the case with Bryant, there are layers of intrigue well beyond the surface meaning. For instance, though Kobe praises A-Rod for remaining a team player on the bench, he also says there are times when a player has to say "hell with it" and do his own thing. It's a similar contradiction to the one Bryant mentioned in a recent Facebook post on leadership, in which he defines leadership as doing the right thing even when it's unpopular and subsequently claims he'd rather be known as a winner than a good teammate. What exactly does it mean to lead a group and also upset many of the people in that group?
Then, on top of that, Kobe put down his friend (even if with no malice) by saying he, a five-time champion, never forgets that he is the best. Or, in other words, that he has the mental strength to succeed no matter the struggles, whereas other great players don't. And although that might be true, it's also not the kind of thing most people say to prop up friends in need.
The context for this discussion, of course, is an entirely different sport than basketball, one where lots of individual successes more closely correlate to team success than in basketball. Bryant might have a point that A-Rod focusing on himself isn't necessarily the worst thing for the Yankees. (He should be in the lineup anyway, but that's a separate issue.) On the other hand, Kobe also doesn't seem to understand baseball at all, because last week he said that the Yankees' chemistry would eventually be hurt by Raul Ibanez's game-tying and walkoff homers against the Baltimore Orioles. You know, because he pinch-hit for A-Rod. That makes sense, right?
Kobe Bryant is one of the best NBA players ever. He is also one of the most complicated public figures in the world. I cannot imagine the NBA without him for both reasons.