Through the sandbox spats with Shaquille O'Neal and criminal charges in Colorado, through the flailing arms and suspensions, Kobe Bryant keeps the innate gift that turns everyone back to the unassailable truth of his mystique: Salvation is forever in his shot.
Whatever grief he brings on himself, whatever trouble comes his way, Bryant finds his forgiveness in shooting the basketball. He keeps shooting, keeps scoring – four consecutive 50-point games – and Bryant bullies back his detractors, his demons, basket after basket. Whatever you want to say about him, he demands this to be included: Best player on the planet.
"Do you remember there was a suspension about two weeks ago?" Phil Jackson asked Friday night in New Orleans. "I think this has motivated him."
Jackson is the grand wizard master of all mind games, and it's easy to see him marveling over the one that Bryant is playing with himself and with everyone.
Fifty points on the Hornets on Friday night seemed so improbable, what with the exertion of dropping 60 points on Memphis, 50 on Minnesota and 65 on Portland in the several days. The resilience of Bryant is the way that he wears everyone else to a nub – his opponents, his public, his teammates. One by one, they tend to bow to his relentless resolve.
He isn't just scoring out of his mind, but he's winning these games, too. This is a binge with the blessing of Jackson, a holy alliance with the blessed triangle offense.
To call his stunning four-game run of reaching 50 points Jordan-esque would be unfair to Bryant because Michael Jordan never did it. Only Wilt and Kobe now. Yes, this is Chamberlain's stratosphere, a stunning achievement considering that the 7-footer destroyed people with finger rolls and dunks. Kobe did it as a guard, did it with 55 percent shooting.
For now, Bryant has restored control of his public persona. "The thing that was frustrating for me is that people were talking about me as a dirty player, which to me was pretty insulting," he said.
Besides the PlayStation scoring runs, here's a solution for Bryant: Stop hitting people in the face. Besides that, Bryant will get past the smacks upside the heads of Manu Ginobili and Marko Jaric because he has the talent to bring it back to his greatness.
Early in the season, Bryant had been in the MVP conversation for transforming himself into a steward of the Los Angeles Lakers' system. In his personal campaign to change his public image post-arrest and post-Shaq, No. 8 had turned to No. 24 and Bryant had been driven to reshape himself in the public eye as a good teammate and good citizen.
As Kobe's learned, people are forever mistaking virtue with victory. As an Eastern Conference scout said then, "Last year, he was so ball hungry in the triangle, he would literally chase it down on offense. It was Kobe vs. everyone. This year, he's much more accepting of his teammates, of his role in the triangle."
Until this past week, when the Lakers' losing gave him license to let loose. When everyone was debating Nowitzki vs. Nash for MVP, Kobe pushed himself back into the discussion. Unlike them, he's a defensive force as well.
Kobe never has won the award, which isn't fair considering that he's been the best player in the sport for several seasons. Circumstances have conspired against him – Shaq as a teammate, to the rape case, to the rebuilding of the roster – but with the Lakers on the cusp of contention in the Western Conference, Bryant could be setting himself up for an MVP breakthrough next season.
What's more, Bryant plans to return to Team USA this summer, where he ought to be the reason Mike Krzyzewski won't lose another game between now and the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games. With Bryant on the floor in Beijing, the Americans are done losing.
So the plan is laid out, shot by shot, and Bryant is executing it to perfection. What has so impressed Jackson is the way that Kobe has gone on this scoring spree without going to the basket, with jump shots arching high and true. Jordan did so much more of his scoring near the rim, something Bryant hasn't had to do.
Bryant has killed them softly with that treacherous touch, pushing himself onto his own private Basketball Rushmore with Wilt. No one can take their eyes off him now, and this is where Kobe controls the message, dictates terms of engagement.
Yes, salvation is forever in the shot.