There are a lot of things about Kobe Bryant that I don't understand.
I curse, constantly, but I don't understand Bryant's inability to find different ways to articulate his feelings in that five-minute span following a game where he has microphones in front of him. If I can find a way to stop from dropping an F-bomb in a short radio interview that nobody is going to hear for five minutes out of my day, why can't the world's most famous athlete find a way to do as much following Laker games?
Secondly? I like to chuck. You like to chuck, your friend Chuck likes to chuck, because it's fun to chuck. Everyone likes to pretend that they're Michael Jordan, nailing that Jordan-esque jumper with a hand in the face, whether they're Michael Jordan or not. That's all Jordan did, in his last few years with Washington, and his crummy field goal percentage and inability to lead his Wizards to the playoffs in the East's worst-ever era were telling. But why Kobe continues to Jordan it all up with what is easily the NBA's best center/power forward combo in his lineup boggles my mind. Why does he have to make it so hard?
What I do get, about Kobe? The obsession. The freakishness, over the game of pro basketball. The ability to argue things away, to make things right in your own mind no matter how wrong you are. In discussing this, Lakers coach Mike Brown let something about this slip Wednesday night as he discussed the two best players he's ever coached:
"LeBron [James] is a guy who is still learning and still growing, and the reality of it is that being down there with Dwyane Wade has helped him," Brown said. "They're different personalities. LeBron, he's a guy who likes to laugh and joke. He knows obviously there's a time to be serious, but he's youthful.
"Kobe is not as much. Kobe's more serious-minded and so on and so forth. But Kobe knows how to have fun in his own way, too."
Of course Kobe is "more serious-minded." World War II generals and Depression-era farmers weren't as "serious-minded" as Kobe Bryant. On the other end of that ledger, Rip Taylor is more "serious-minded" than LeBron James. LeBron is the guy who was nearly wooed back to play for a terrible team in Cleveland because they put together a personalized Family Guy cartoon to show him.
Here's Kobe Wednesday night, after dropping scoring totals that he's probably quicker to remember than his own Social Security number:
"I scored back-to-back 40's with a [bleeped]-up wrist," Bryant said, his eyes still gleaming at the just-completed achievement. "What does it matter if it's still [bleeped]-up in the playoffs?"
It's always been about the "40" with him. Yes, he's super "serious-minded," but to what individual end? For years, Phil Jackson chafed at Bryant for preferring to look the 40-dropping martyr in a loss over a marginalized cog (at least, that's how Kobe probably took it) in a win, and even 15 years into his career Bryant is still working under his same showy, soap-opera guidelines. Every shot has to be the "three … two … one … Bryant for the win …"-type that kids take by themselves while shooting away on the playground.
This is why both men are unsuccessful.
You heard me. This is why, and not because of a glaring lack of depth, that the Lakers fell in 2003 and 2004. They could have taken the Spurs and Pistons in those years. This is why things didn't work out last May, against Dallas (Los Angeles couldn't grab one game? Come on) in the playoffs.
This is why LeBron fell, in 2009. This is why he failed against Dallas last June. This is why he falls down on Wednesday night, against the Clippers in Los Angeles.
This is, of course, why both men are successful.
Yes, Kobe had three rings by the time he was LeBron's age, mostly because he played alongside that preening amalgam of Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard in Shaquille O'Neal. But he was also the guy calling up Tex Winter for advice in Chicago as he watched Shaq and Kurt Rambis fritter away the lockout season in 1999, always looking to learn and overcome.
He was also the guy practicing jumpers until everything hurt. He was also the one hurt the most by Phil Jackson's seeming indifference and supposed preference for Shaq's talents once The Guy Who Coached Michael came to Los Angeles. Ticked off, he just skulked back to the gym for another thousand made jumpers; developing a mettle so strong he's still dropping 40 on back-to-back nights 15 years into the longest 15 years we've ever seen an NBA player endure, with one arm. Can't even tie his shoes, people. Still drops 40.
And once LeBron wins it -- and he will win it, someday -- his lighter touch will be the reason why. Because, like Jordan, he understands that the court tilts. That things have to flow away from the apparent focal point and that you have to use a defense's aggression against itself at times. Whether this is because James boasts some innate understanding of basketball at a high level or because he's backed into this isn't the point. He'll be just as at home winning a title by hitting a jumper in the final seconds as he will be scoring a series of hockey assists as the team pulls away early in the third quarter of the deciding game.
What has become apparent, through all of this, is that we're about five months removed from letting these two duel it out, even if they don't duel at all. Kobe will attempt to turn it into that, and James will fail if he attempts to do the same. Hell, Kobe will fail if he attempts it, and turns it into a one-on-one pairing. All their hubris and silliness and brilliance will be out in the open, ready for us to pick at.
Ready for us to enjoy, as well.
You're always supposed to take the field, in team sports, because anything can happen. But you and I both know that this is happening, right? You're allowed to hibernate until June, friends. I'll wake you up when Miami and Los Angeles tip it off.