On March 1, fans visiting Staples Center in Los Angeles hoping to witness a competitive NBA matchup between the Lakers and Pacers, saw more action than their wallets paid for. Just moments after a 96-84 Lakers’ victory, a trash-talking contest between Kobe Bryant and Reggie Miller went awry. Bryant, responding to a biting comment from Miller, began swinging away at Miller, forcing the former all-star to fight back and defend himself.
Shall we call it the Kobe Bryant scuffle? NBA front office personnel, Los Angeles Lakers fans and sports lovers alike would rather envision the Kobe Bryant shuffle; you know the little dance atop the Staples Center podium with confetti endlessly falling to the familiar tune of “We Are the Champions,” as the Lakers wave their third straight NBA championship banner.
This was supposed to be Kobe Bryant’s year of promise. The 23-year-old veteran is coming off his second straight world championship title and has already added this year’s All-Star MVP award to his trophy case and list of accolades. Shaquille O’Neal, who would normally be one of the few players capable of competing with Bryant for the coveted MVP award, has continually endorsed Bryant as his candidate for the best player in the league.
But even with all this working in his favor, it turns out that, while Kobe is a five-year NBA veteran, he is still just 23 years old. While Bryant appears to personify a suave competitor who plays beyond his years, one must remember he is still just a year older than some of the DP-partying, porcelain-thumping, fraternity-fazing seniors.
Much of the responsibility for Bryant’s pressure to perform lies with the NBA. Scheduling the Lakers on primetime television nearly every weekend, Bryant is continually pushed (not against his will, mind you) into the limelight. Since the end of the Bulls dynasty, television ratings have severely dropped and the NBA is starving for an heir to relinquish the vacated throne, left up for grabs after Jordan’s departure in Chicago. But the fact of the matter is the NBA still needs to hold off for a couple of years until a matured Kobe Bryant is ready to take over the realm.
The fighting incident did not go unnoticed by the commissioner’s office. David Stern acquitted neither Kobe Bryant nor Reggie Miller in his verdict on Sunday. The NBA suspended both players two games and handed out fines of $12,500 and $10, 000 respectively.
Still, youth combined with NBA fame and fortune does not excuse Bryant of his misconduct. Bryant is a role model, one of the poster boys of the NBA. Kobe has built his image on the “nice guy” mentality that contrasts with the common “street” play, characterized by many of today’s stars. It is no wonder then that Reggie Miller had the response that he did.
“Kobe has other issues he has to deal with,” Miller said in the Los Angeles Times. “This had nothing to do with me or the basketball game played on Friday evening.”
Whatever sparked the engulfing fire inside Kobe Bryant must be quickly contained. The Lakers will need Bryant to make their annual run late in the season before the playoffs. And while Los Angeles has survived in the past on the backs of Shaq and Kobe, an ingenious basketball mind in Phil Jackson and support from role players, it is time people start to ask some questions.
Will Kobe vs. Reggie be the scuffle that pulls together a divided Lakers squad to dance their way to a third straight June Shuffle? Or, will the conflict knock out a team that habitually saves its punches for the later rounds?
Stay tuned, because this is one boxing match that figures to go the distance.