Coming to murky grips with the career of Kobe Bean Bryant

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My middle son, age 23, texted me last Wednesday night while my wife and I were out of town: “I’m in downtown LA shaking…shivering… cannot believe what I just witnessed.”

Oh my God. Was he Ok? Had he just witnessed a murder? A hit-and-run accident? Should we drive home?

No. He and his older brother had agreed to meet downtown just to stand outside Staples Center to be in close proximity for Kobe Bryant’s last game as a Los Angeles Laker.

Bryant’s 60-point performance had– literally and viscerally– emotionally moved my son.

My response: “Glad you were there…something to remember the rest of your life.”

In truth, the “Kobe question” had been gnawing at me for years: was a man accused of rape in 2003 worthy of such adulation?

This was a tough one. I had raised my three boys as Laker fans and once you do that, well, there’s no turning back.

Kobe’s rape charge in the summer 2003 threw my family for a serious loop, to the point where I didn’t know how to react. The first move was to hide the newspaper for a few days before finally summoning the strength to explain the situation.

“You can’t play games forever,” I wrote in a column for the L.A. Times in July of 2003, “so Friday night, I called my boys into the living room and told them the truth: that Bryant had been charged with a bad crime against a woman but that didn’t mean he was guilty.

I told them that it was OK to have sports heroes but that they needed to understand that heroes bleed, make mistakes and, in some cases, go to jail.

The conversation was long overdue, but you know how that goes.

The message, I suppose, as always, in the end, is “choose your sports heroes carefully.”

And then life went on.  Charges against Bryant were dropped. A civil case was settled out of court. Bryant led the Lakers to two more NBA titles.

And that was (sort of) the end of it.

I continued to enjoy Bryant as a player while generally dismissing him as an admirable person. I was somewhat satisfied knowing that Bryant did pay a tab for his dirty deed in Colorado. He lost millions in endorsements. The best he could do for a while was an ad for “Turkish Airlines.” His wife filed for divorce. He was publicly shamed and humiliated.

His wife ultimately forgave him and the couple reconciled. “Why?” is really none of my business.

As years passed, I even grudgingly admitted to his seeming maturation.

Did that change what happened in 2003?

No.

But should I feel ashamed for enjoying his truly incredible, career-ending performance last Wednesday?

Same answer: No.

My son rode the metro to downtown and told me he couldn’t believe the galvanizing impact Kobe’s last game had on the community. African Americans in Kobe jerseys bonded with Koreans in Kobe jerseys. Rich fans bonded with poor.

Yet, Kobe also faced inevitable backlash from a few social media morality deputies who wanted to remind us of Bryant’s undeniable past.

African American columnist Jason Whitlock went so far as to call Kobe “the most fraudulent celebrity athlete we have ever seen.”

The problem here is that some people paint the world in black and white when it is, in fact, almost always gray.

Just because we have a justice system doesn’t mean there’s always justice. Fact: rich people who can hire fancy lawyers have a far less chance of going to jail. Fact: Kobe was a rich person.

Fact: all human beings are flawed. We should not cherry pick on moral authority.

I love John Lennon’s music even though he was a woman beater. He wrote a song in the 1960s called “Run For Your Life” in which he sang, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man.” He toughened up a sappy Paul McCartney song on Sgt. Pepper’s with a middle verse “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene.”

I’m glad he did change his scene because the lyric was autobiographical, as Lennon explained in a 1980 interview with Playboy: “I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself so I hit. I fought men and I hit women.”

Can I deplore Lennon’s early anger issues and still think “In My Life” was one of the greatest songs ever written?

One of Mick Jagger’s ex-wives, Jerry Hall, claims he was a sexual deviant. But gee, at least Mick had the decency to wait for Mackenzie Phillips, the daughter of John Phillips, to turn 18 before he took sexual advantage of her. You know, just to make it not, officially, a crime.

Should I post this on Facebook every time I sing along to “Wild Horses” on the radio?

Picasso was a serial womanizer. Roman Polanski fled the U.S. rather than face charges for having sex with a 13-year old girl. He also directed “China Town” and “The Pianist.”

Woody Allen had an affair with his step daughter, yet I still enjoyed “Midnight in Paris.”

Bill Clinton is a lousy husband but was a good president. George W. Bush seems like a good husband but was a lousy president.

Franklin Roosevelt had an affair with Lucy Mercer, but I’m glad Eleanor didn’t leave him. Dwight Eisenhower was an adulterer but I’m glad he led the Normandy Invasion.

Life isn’t always “either-or” or “all-or-nothing.” More often, it’s everything in between.

I’m confident I can keep all that straight when I consider what Joe Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky and also what “JoePa” still means to so many Penn State fans.

Appreciating what Kobe did the other night, scoring 60 points in his final game, doesn’t exonerate him for his imperfections and indiscretions.

I’ve also determined it was OK for my boys to enjoy last Wednesday without guilt, so long as they understood the full arc of his life AND his jump shot.

 

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Why Villanova’s win was good for college basketball

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Words can’t really do justice to the end of Monday’s NCAA title game so let’s begin with non-words “whoa,” “whew” and that old Ralph Kramden favorite: ‘homina, homina, homina.”

Villanova over North Carolina was as good as it gets at a time when college hoops needed a champagne supernova.  The first title game on cable television provided a dynamite ending on a family of channels  that includes TNT.

bigeastIt was a huge, heroic, in-your-face win for the Big East, which was decimated by cut-throat expansion instigated by the predatory ACC, which big-footed six teams into the Sweet 16 but couldn’t cut down the final net.

One theory postulated is that a very powerful ACC coach, who recently irritated Oregon and had knee replacement surgery, didn’t like how big the Big East had grown in basketball. So, he covertly led the charge to lure Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville to the fold.

The Big East was wiped out in football and reduced to small potatoes in basketball.

Well, ACC, how do you like them potatoes?

Monday night proved again why major sports on television remain bullet-proof. You can’t even risk taping the game to skip the commercials for fear of missing something in real Twitter time. There is simply no reality-show replacement for this kind of unscripted drama.

No other television event can make a grown man scream at the boob tube the way I did as Villanova was trying to protect a three-point lead in the final seconds.

Rankman was court side for the 2008 title game at San Antonio, when Memphis couldn’t protect a three-point lead against Kansas. While others may respectfully disagree, the rule in my rule house is you NEVER allow the opponent a chance to tie the game with a three pointer. You ALWAYS foul, within reason, to put the other team on the free-throw line. This almost assures you will get possession back with the lead.

Memphis didn’t foul against Kansas and watched Mario Chalmers hit the game-tying three at the buzzer. Kansas won in overtime.

“Foul them, foul them, foul them!” I screamed at Villanova in Monday’s waning seconds.

It wasn’t that I necessarily cared who won-there were principles and axioms on the line!

Villanova, however, gave guard Marcus Paige the chance to make his preposterous, gravity-defying three with 4.7 seconds left. Villanova was only lucky it had enough time left for Kris Jenkins to put a Philly cheese stake into the Tar Heels’ heart.

College basketball needed this game after the debacle of the lopsided semifinals, which were decided by 61 total points.

College hoops needed Villanova because it was the most well-scrubbed and “hug-worthy” of the entrants.  The other schools came to Houston with an entourage of NCAA baggage. North Carolina over Syracuse in one semi featured a team facing major infractions against another team already serving them out.

Oklahoma hasn’t done anything unscrupulous lately, yet it wasn’t that long ago that Kelvin Sampson coached there. This is also a program that ranks tied for fourth on the all-time NCAA probation list.

Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim, the North Carolina and Syracuse coaches, had become insufferable and sanctimonious in defense of their programs.

Boeheim lectured the press about the difference between cheating and breaking the rules, while Williams whined in the face of legitimate questions regarding pending sanctions related to, potentially, one of the worst academic scandals in the history of higher education.

It’s true players on these teams deserved the lion’s share of the spotlight, yet it’s also fair to query coaches who were both around in the time frame of the alleged infractions.

Even NCAA President Mark Emmert acknowledged things didn’t look good.

“Yeah, sure, I understand why optically people have a lot of questions around all that,” he said last week at his annual Final Four press conference. “It makes perfect sense that they might.”

In that sense, the “right” team won Monday.  Emmert had to be thrilled with the outcome because it relieves his office of potentially handing down major sanctions against a reigning national champion.

Thank you, Villanova, for taking some of the stench out of the air.

Now we wait for the hammer to drop, or not, on North Carolina.

“Obviously a very complex circumstance,” Emmert said last week.  “It’s been moving along very well.”

Not well enough, of course, that it would ever be resolved before the NCAA’s Final Four spring fling in Houston.

Thank you, Villanova, for providing some joy before the ugliness.

Emmert said his staff is nearing a point where it can “issue allegations, or notice of allegations, in the very near future.”

Rest assured, that won’t be “one shining moment.”