There's Still a Lot of 8-Hate
Two days after the most incredible individual performance in the history of the NBA, and here came the flagrant fouls.
Pat Riley shrugged at reporters.
"It's remarkable, the execution and the efficiency, but we've got a lot of guys in this league, if they took 70 shots, they'd score a lot of points," he said.
Vince Carter preached to reporters.
"The only bad thing about it is young kids, whose minds are easily warped, are going to think, 'Ohhh, I am going to go out there and do it' instead of the team concept first," he said.
Shaquille O'Neal refused comment to reporters. Of course.
The punishment that Kobe Bryant avoided in flitting around the Toronto Raptors for 81 points Sunday caught up to him quickly afterward, cheap elbows and late shoves and all sort of jersey grabbing.
He has since been mocked by writers, questioned by opposing players, ignored by all legends but Magic Johnson, and, in his first public appearance Tuesday, visited by only a handful of local reporters and TV types.
"This goes along with who we are as a society," Coach Phil Jackson said. "Somebody does something exceptional, people are looking for ways to denigrate them."
Given Bryant's past, people haven't had to look hard.
Folks have been talking about Colorado so much, you would have thought he scored 81 against the Nuggets.
There has been so much yammering about selfishness, you would have thought the Lakers lost.
Everyone has been so focused on the description, "ball hog," you would have never known that one of his most important plays was a pass to Lamar Odom.
The statement made by Bryant on the Staples Center court Sunday night was far less compelling than the message delivered later in the national town hall.
Lots of people don't like him. Lots of people will never like him.
If Tim Duncan had scored 81 points, the sports world would declare a national holiday. If Allen Iverson had scored 81 points, he would have rushed to "Oprah" to weepingly discuss his personal growth.
Bryant is allowed no such vacation from his past, and will be offered no such public redemption of his sins.
"In this society, we never give people a chance to come back to grace," Jackson said.
One columnist began his Bryant piece by writing about a selfish Bryant act from an All-Star game — eight years ago.
Another columnist wrote about how Bryant was so impressive, this time, Vanessa bought him a ring.
In an era where "maturity" has become as much of a sports cliché as "one game at a time," Bryant is the one athlete deemed incapable of growing up.
During a time when even a guy who admitted to hindering a murder investigation can return to popularity — see Ray Lewis — Bryant is the one athlete whose personal problems have no expiration date.
Those who love him, they have always loved him. Those who don't, they never will. Nike can make him the focus of an infomercial at halftime of the Super Bowl, and the second group will still remain sizably larger than the first.
"Off the court, I just try to be myself," Bryant said Tuesday. "I've been through a lot, and I just try to be me. Hopefully as the years go on, people will understand what I'm about."
As pandering goes, that quote qualifies as an airball, and that's the problem.
What makes Bryant so great on the court makes him so unapproachable off the court.
It's about imposing his will. The way he treats a rookie guard is the way he treats a wary public.
He will stare, he will sneer, he will do it his way and, eventually, everyone will have no choice but to appreciate him.
Those same NBA fans who rip Duncan and the Detroit Pistons for being boring will one day embrace this greatest of entertainers, he knows it.
Those writers who call him selfish will see how he can lift his ordinary Laker team to the playoffs, he's certain.
And all those players who dislike him, well, he is confident they will realize one day that at least he's not a phony like O'Neal.
Speaking of which, does anybody else think that, in two seasons in Miami, O'Neal has become exactly what he despised in Bryant?
In his comments about his former teammate and former owner, he has been selfish and immature and so petty, he's become The Big Small.
As for that admitted dog Vince Carter, well, hearing him talk about role modeling is like listening to Ben Roethlisberger talk about grooming.
Then there was the quote from the Miami Heat's Antoine Walker, who told reporters, "If somebody gets 81 on me, I'm going to clothesline him."
That, of course, will never happen, because in order to clothesline somebody, Walker must first guard somebody.
Bryant's 81 points do not change his personality or his past. He can still be prickly to onlookers, cocky to opponents, and downright scary to teammates.
He is a complex guy who can be as selfish as he is brilliant, a hardened 27-year-old whose persona is as beyond understanding as his game.
But shame on those who would use any of that to diminish Sunday night. Can we, for once, just enjoy art for art's sake without analyzing the painter? Can we dance to the splendid music without condemning the strange composer?
It was a night when Bryant was greater than Michael, greater than Elgin and, yes, greater than Wilt. No matter how you add it, 81 was more impressive than 100.
"Yes, it was," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who should know. "That's because of the wide variety of shots that he used, driving, pulling up, behind the three-point line, it was an incredible feat of versatility."
Jackson said you had to be there. "I think people didn't see the game and just lost context of what the game is about," he said of Bryant's critics.
"It's easy to say something that would be derogatory and cut it down a little bit, but if you were there at the game, I think everybody understands how remarkable it was."
And this, from a guy who once considered Bryant uncoachable.
"As for a message to the youth," Bryant said, addressing Carter's ridiculous statement. "My message is that if you work hard, you can go beyond anyone's expectations, even your own."
The kids are listening, if nobody else is.
My daughter Mary Clare, who turns 11 today, walked downstairs at the start of this season wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey. It had been buried in her closet for two years. I wondered why she had pulled it out.
She didn't say he was a reborn saint or a role model, she used a different word.
"He was bad a long time ago," she said. "He's cool again."
Why can't we just be cool with cool?
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.