September 1, 2010
It seems basketball stars these days are more concerned with Hollywood than they are with winning games. Lebron spent much of last summer promoting his documentary “More Than a Game.” Howard is starring in a Chinese-directed basketball movie called “Amazing” and even Bosh is filming a Sports Illustrated rendition of “A Day in the Life with Chris Bosh.” Not to belittle their work ethics, but I can’t help but feel that this generation of ballers are just a different breed of basketball players.
If you rewind the clock a little to the era of Jordan, Bird and Magic, it really does feel like we’ve gone back in time. Basketball was played differently back then. They played like gladiators in a Roman coliseum, fighting to their deaths. All-Star games were less like one-hour Globetrotter specials, and more like a battle royale for coastal bragging rights. Players wanted to destroy each other, and the animosity drove their game to another level of competition.
A lot of the old school was defined by competitiveness, discipline, as well as talent. Name the top 5 players in the NBA. You might get names like Lebron, Wade, Kobe, Durant, and Chris Paul. To be a little more flexible, let’s throw in Melo, Howard and even Deron Williams. Now, of those five to eight, name one player with a killer instinct besides Kobe Bryant. None. Name another with a discipline to parallel Larry Bird. None. Talent and nothing else; just smoke and mirrors.
Larry Bird, 15 years after retiring, finished a mile in 5:20. Wallace couldn’t jog a half court for more than three minutes at a time. Read Bill Simmons’ book (not that I’ve finished it). It’s a dense book, but it speaks volumes of knowledge. One particular excerpt stood out to me. It was about Michael Jordan and his competitiveness. Rod Higgins, a former teammate, beat Jordan in a game of ping-pong once. Jordan, then, proceeded to buy a ping-pong table and became the best ping-pong player on the team. It’s the stuff of legends. Now the word legend is defined by a man who after seven championship-less seasons, is hailed as the King of NBA despite his lack of champion-esque essence.
Our generation loves natural talent. We love to put gifted players on a pedestal and idolize their innate athleticism. The problem is, athleticism can only take your game of basketball so far. Once you reach a certain mileage, it’s a downhill slope to ground zero. Vince Carter is a shell of his former self, and even T-mac’s future with the Pistons is questionable. They are no longer the superstars that they were in the past. What makes LeBron James any different? Oh, but a better question is, what makes Kobe Bryant any different?
One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was Kobe’s evolving game of basketball. When he first entered the scene in 1996, he had just as much explosive power in his legs as Shannon Brown. We’re all amazed at the athletic dunkability of Lebron, but don’t forget that Kobe was the 1997 dunk contest winner. Not only was Kobe a high-flying rocket butt, but his dunks were creative as well. But no one talks about his dunk on Yao Ming anymore. Those days are gone. But we don’t forget who Kobe Bryant is, because he keeps his game fresh by working his ass off.
“We had the day off, but they said we could get some shots up if we wanted, so I decided to head over to the gym with [Oklahoma City teammate] Jeff Green. Kobe [Bryant] was the only guy on the bus to the gym, and that spoke volumes to me — he’s the best player in the game, yet he’s always willing to come work on his game, so that kind of motivated me and Jeff.” – Kevin Durant
“He wanted to work on his post moves, and he wanted me to work with him,” Olajuwon said. “That’s a great compliment because I know I added value to his game. Now to see him using it, that’s a great thing for me.” – Hakeem Olajuwon
A small forward/shooting guard does not need post moves that centers utilize. But this is how Kobe approaches basketball. He is a student of the game, first and foremost. And while natural talents play a big role in determining success, Kobe Bryant also understands that a good work ethic is equally as important. First to arrive at the gym, last to leave. It reminds me of an old proverb by Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”
Add to that the ruthlessness and competitive drive, and you have yourself a juggernaut. There are a lot of talented and athletic players on the court today, but no single player comprised of gifting, ambition, the IQ, and work ethics like that of the old school players except Kobe. This is why I scoff at the idea of Kelly Dwyer putting Dwayne Wade as the #1 guard in the NBA. Nobody has the work ethics to work on his game 80% of the time that he’s awake. Nobody has the killer instinct to take over big games that they’re willing to take the fall for. And nobody in the NBA has the desire to win as much as Kobe.
With the generation of Nash, Duncan, and Iverson passing the torch, there’s not a lot of prospects to get excited about. Yeah, it may be overkill, but I do believe Kobe Bryant is the last of a dying breed.