Commentary

Kobe a talented star to many but self-centred show-off to others

Is Kobe Bryant an exemplary role model of how a professional athlete should be - steadfast, diligent and willing to push himself to the limit of his abilities?

Or is he a bad example of a selfish, egotistical braggart who wants only himself to shine in a team sport?

That there are loud supporters in both schools of thought is the most compelling evidence that we have witnessed the career of one of the most polarising athletes of this generation.

You either love him or loathe him, and that depends on your take on sports.

Recent bad injuries have finally made him ready to let it go. But one can never be sure about Bryant: In a sport that asks so much of teamwork among five players on the court, he stands alone.

If you are a sports fan who believes that athletes should spend their professional lives pursuing excellence, Bryant is nothing if exemplary.

He was an unstoppable scorer in his prime, yet he continues to work prodigiously hard at honing every possible skill needed to win, and has diligently added to his arsenal even late in his career.

But if you are a sports fan who loves the team game, values how several athletes can come together for the same cause, hone their disparate rhythms into one collective beat, and triumph over other similarly talented teams, then you might frown over Bryant's antics.

For he hogs the ball, refuses to pass to inferior team-mates and is known to pass withering criticism on his own team during practice - all well-documented instances in which he has disrupted the unity amid his one and only professional franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yes, he has earned the Lakers five titles during his 20 seasons. Yet he could have won a couple more, had he not been so intent on putting all the load on himself and thus alienating his team-mates.

The very trait that defines Bryant - his indomitable will - is also the very trait that makes him an abrasive team-mate.

You either share the same work ethic, or you are not worthy to be his partner in crime - not even the ever-partying Shaquille O'Neal, despite his dominant talents.

And, as he has also realised late in his career, very few have his insatiable will to succeed. So he has learnt to mellow out, be more of an elder statesmen for young and hungry talents like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

And those young ones absolutely adored him. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they dutifully let Bryant take over when the games became tight, especially in the final against Spain.

So one of the most successful basketballers will soon retire from the National Basketball Association with some mind-boggling career statistics.

Yet, there is another "feat" that has rarely been said of Bryant - that he has survived the "social media" generation of sports relatively unscathed, even as the biggest star of his sport.

In the age when every move by a star sportsman is being posted, tweeted and Instagram-ed, Bryant should have been buried by all the online debate about his legacy.

But he still stands stoic, unmoved by vitriol, and by announcing his own retirement, completes his career on his own terms.

When he stopped by in Singapore for a coaching clinic in 2009, I asked him when he would know it was time to retire. He gave it a thought, then said: "It's a tough question, but the bottom line is that I still love the game.

"Some senior players say that, 'When you've got to go, you'll know it'. I'm not ready to retire yet."

Recent bad injuries have finally made him ready to let it go. But one can never be sure about Bryant: In a sport that asks so much of teamwork among five players on the court, he stands alone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Kobe a talented star to many but self-centred show-off to others'. Print Edition | Subscribe