|He's looked to for guidance, but the Lakers' Kobe Bryant doesn't seem to have an answer for Vladimir Radmanovic here. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
LOS ANGELES - The bejeweled guy sitting in a high-priced front-row seat had a Lakers gold jacket. On the back it read "THANK GOD FOR KOBE."
Oh, the burden of being Kobe.
Sometimes it's nice being Kobe Bryant. You're scoring in the 30s and 40s, your team is comfortably ahead, and the adoring crowd is chanting "M-V-P!" as you take some pressure-less garbage-time free throws. That's a good time to be Kobe Bryant.
But then there's a night when you have no field goals and six assists as your team moves to an 18-point halftime lead and you then are criticized for not being able to mount the white horse and lead the team to victory by virtue of your fourth-quarter shooting.
The critics now say you have failed to deliver, that you overdid the passing thing in the first half and you therefore didn't have a proper shooting rhythm when it came to what Magic Johnson used to refer to as "Winnin' Time." That's not a good time to be Kobe Bryant.
Meanwhile, there's the comparison that never goes away.
You may be good, kid, but you're no Michael.
Can Kobe ever win?
"It's not fair," contends Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I said before the series started I've never seen a guy this talented get criticized as much as he does. It's completely unfair."
Bryant is 29, a veteran of 12 NBA seasons. He entered into our national athletic consciousness as an 18-year-old who was bold enough to submit his name into the NBA draft directly out of Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. His father Joe, nicknamed "Jellybean," was a talented if somewhat scatterbrained 6-foot-9-inch forward who played eight years in the NBA before spending a number of years in Italy, where son Kobe, perhaps the first superstar American athlete ever named for a cut of beef, spent his formative years.
At 6-6 and 205 pounds he has the kind of mid-sized physique that enables him to do most anything he wishes on the basketball court. He can rain threes. He can post up. And though the mid-range game is said to be disappearing in general terms, Bryant owns a magnificent one.
He is a superb driver who earned double-digit free throw attempts 31 times during the 2007-08 regular season. He is a great passer when the mood strikes. It's either Kobe or Paul Pierce as the best rebounding 2-guard in the league, and, finally, he is an annual member of the All-Defensive team.
He is, yes, the best individual player in the game, the one with the broadest range of A-level skills.
He is also the 2007-08 Most Valuable Player.
So what's the problem?
Truth be told, there are many.
The essential problem is that when someone is this supremely talented there is an unrealistic level of expectation. Because it looks so easy when things are going well, people wonder why it doesn't happen all the time. Every time Bryant makes one of those ungodly deep line-drive turnarounds, people are confused and mystified when he misses the next two.
"What's wrong with him?" they want to know.
What they forget is that no one else could make even one out of 20. Kobe's the only one who could make even three or four out of 10.
Another problem for someone like Bryant is that it is very difficult to calibrate your game, to find the delicate balance between being a skilled player who has the shooting and passing skills to complement every one of his teammates, and the virtuoso who simply can ignore the other four men while going about the business of winning a game all by himself (or close to it).
Exhibit A of the latter was LA's Game 6 in the San Antonio series. Bryant was basically an observer in the first half, scoring 7 points. He wound up with 39 as the Lakers closed out the Spurs, with 17 in the fourth quarter.
Such an exploit, repeated many times over, has earned him the reputation as the greatest "closer" in the contemporary game. But no basketball player can be compared to Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon. It's not that simple.
Here, for example, are Kobe Bryant's four fourth quarters in the Boston series:
Game 1. Entered with the Lakers trailing the Celtics by 4. He scored 4 points, with his only hoop 15 seconds into the period. Lakers lose, 98-88.
Game 2. Entered with the Lakers trailing by 22. He scored 12 points during the frantic LA comeback, a gallant effort that fell short by 6 points. Assessed blame for passing to Sasha Vujacic with LA down by 4 (106-102), especially since Pierce blocked the Vujacic jumper.
Game 3. Entered with the Lakers trailing by 2. He scored 10 well-distributed points as the Lakers won by 6. Included were two late coffin-nailing baskets, a tough line-drive foul line jumper that made it 85-78, and a nice up-fake 10-foot leaner that made it 87-81.
Game 4. Entered with LA leading by 2. He scored 8 points, with a gap of 5:53 between his second basket (a jumper to make it 77-75) and his next points, a pair of free throws emanating from a drive. Scored his final basket, a strong drive, to get LA within 89-87. Again was heavily criticized for "allowing" Vujacic to take a three when LA desperately needed a basket late in the game.
Clearly, Bryant is expected to be The Man 100 percent of the time. Who can live up to that?
A mythic figure known as Michael, that's who.
Bryant hates being compared to Michael Jordan, because he knows he can never win. At the same time, he is the one who created a heightened level of expectation by making it clear a few years back when Shaquille O'Neal was a Laker and the team was winning three straight titles that he wanted more freedom to do his own thing.
Kobe's the one who held the town emotionally hostage last summer with his public attempt to get himself traded. So he brought a lot of his current image problems on himself.
All Rivers knows is that, from a coaching standpoint, Bryant is a handful.
"We're up, 3-1, and we know we have a lot of basketball to play because Kobe is on that team," Rivers says. "He's the scariest player in the NBA in a lot of ways, so you're fearful of him all the time. You should be - a respectful fear."
In LA these days, it's all about Kobe, one way or the other. He asked for it, and he sure has it. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.