The recent news that Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa has filed for divorce represents yet another chapter in the fascinating, bewildering, troubling, frustrating, maddening, upsetting and wildly entertaining life and career of perhaps the most polarizing superstar athlete of our times.
Like most basketball fans, I greatly admire the extraordinary on-court skills of Kobe Bryant, while at the same time detesting his personality and off-court behavior (of course, I have never met Kobe nor am I ever likely to, but virtually all reports about him reveal him to be a horrid human being).
The fact that a multi-millionaire celebrity cheated on his wife is hardly earth-shattering news, in fact, I would be surprised (and even a little disappointed) if he was faithful to his bride. Rather, what makes this impending divorce noteworthy is simply the fact that Kobe has ascended to the zenith of pop culture celebrity, while having a life and career that the most imaginative Hollywood screen writer could not have envisioned.
Kobe, who is -- amazingly after all he has been through – only 32, has lived a life of such wild ups-and-downs, that it boggles the mind to contemplate. Has there ever been an American athlete who elicits such admiration and derision simultaneously? Perhaps Barry Bonds, but Kobe is a much higher-profile athlete than Bonds and he has consistently played on winning and championship teams.
Moreover, unlike Bonds, Kobe actually has some likable attributes. Bryant is also widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of his generation and (arguably) one of the five greatest ever to play in the NBA.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Bryant is the most unique and fascinating athlete of our time. He is unlike any other player I can think of. While Kobe is obnoxious, arrogant. greedy and selfish (qualities hardly unusual in the spheres of professional sports), he is also highly articulate, intelligent and impossible to categorize.
Consider some of the strange and unpredictable parts of Kobe’s charmed and ill-stared life:
*Drafted at only 17 from high school, Kobe was drafted by the lowly Charlotte Hornets, but somehow (without any apparent leverage whatsoever) forced a trade to the glamorous Los Angeles Lakers.
*Gradually became a superstar for the Lakers, while completely alienating his teammates and coaches and refusing to socialize with them outside the realm of basketball.
*Formed a dynamic duo with center Shaquille O’Neal (as great as the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar combination) and won three championships, then proceeded to feud with O’Neal, destroy that successful coupling, and force Shaq’s trade to Miami.
*Held the Lakers hostage by threatening to bolt to the cross-town Clippers – a ruse that worked and gained Kobe a huge new contract extension.
*Became so furious over criticism that he shoots too much and hogs the ball, he intentionally refused to shoot during entire periods of important playoff games (proving his point that the club needs his offense, while concurrently ruining the team’s chances in those games).
*Scored a phenomenal 81 points in a game in 2006 (the second-highest ever after Wilt Chamberlain).
*Somehow, after the debacle of the 2003 sexual assault case in Colorado (which was eventually dropped and settled out of court), Kobe managed to partially restore his reputation and his commercial endorsement appeal.
*In the wake of the Colorado sex scandal, Kobe tearfully apologized to his wife in a public press conference and asserted his innocence… while handing her a $4-million ring.
Outside of Los Angeles at least, Kobe is widely hated – and this divorce will not do him any favors in the field of popularity. Moreover, I think he will continue to flourish, play outstanding basketball, and perhaps win one or two more championships (perhaps moving ahead of the incomparable Michael Jordan in the final tally).
What is perhaps most surprising about the Kobe-Vanessa marriage is not that it is ending, but rather that it has lasted so long (about 11 years -- which is an eternity for people so young and famous).
Kobe met Vanessa when she was only 17 at some kind of music video shoot (not exactly the kind of meeting that tends to lead to long-lasting, meaningful relationships).
Reportedly, the marriage alienated Kobe from his parents who were upset that he didn’t marry a black girl (Vanessa is Hispanic and white).
Interestingly, Kobe was a polarizing figure even before the rape accusations of 2003 (although that episode clearly created a wider gulf between him and the fans).
Indeed, from what I have read and gathered, many black American fans disliked Kobe long before that fateful night in Colorado -- and it had largely to do with class issues. Kobe Bryant (unlike the vast majority of black American athletes) grew up in a firmly privileged upper middle-class family. His father, Joe, was ex-basketball player himself. Moreover, (much to the consternation of many urban black hoops fans), Kobe spent a large portion of his childhood in Europe and learned to speak Italian fluently). Thus, unlike say, Lebron James or Allen Iverson, Kobe was viewed as being, shall we say, “less than authentic” and lacking in any definable street-smarts.
Then again, his wondrous talents with the orange ball would seem to have made such reservations meaningless.
Kobe strikes me as a person who simply cannot get along with anyone (and does not care to). In this respect, he is much like the “tortured artist-geniuses” of the past.
It will be interesting to see what Kobe does for the remaining years of his basketball career and what he does for the rest of his life. Given the first tumultuous three decades of his life, the next three or four should be wildly intriguing.
Only then can we ascertain what his lasting legacy will be.