Down on South Figeuora street in South Central L.A. there used be the Mark Twain branch of the L.A. County Public Library system. As a seventh grader, I stopped there each day on my way home from school. One Indian Summer September afternoon, I found a book entitled, " They call me, Mr. Clutch." It was the story of Jerry West. I must've read the book fifty times. I listened to every Laker game on the radio and watched Chick Hearn and Lynn Shackelford broadcast the games on Channel 9. That was a long time ago. Conservatively, I would estimate that I've watched Jerry West play 300 times. Although I admired Big O's game, I didn't see him as often because he was off in Cincinnati (and later, Milwaukee). No NBA TV or Sports Center in those days, my friends.
Jerry West , in my eyes, was the finest guard to every step on a court-- I would have argued this with any fan, coach or broadcaster. There were many great ones, but Jerry West soared above all others. Until now. Jerry West has been replaced by Kobe Bryant.
What Leonardo did for Christian iconography, Kobe has done for basketball. He is, at once, the finest player alive today.
This recent scoring surge (65, 50, 62 and 50) has brought the "Kobe haters' out in full effect. "Yeah, he is selfish and he just shoots all the time," is some of oddball commentary I've heard.
Isn't scoring the highest level skill in basketball? Isn't that the nature of the game...to 'score' the basketball? I have said in my essays on basketball that 'passing' is an overrated skill. The salient, most valuable skill in passing is learning when not to. Passes very easily become turnovers--and turnovers are substantively de-moralizing. My study of the game has led to this conclusion: "Knowing when to pass--and when not to-- is a high level cognitive skill that few players possess. Passing, for the sake of passing-- that is with no purposefulness-- creates more problems than it solves." Knowing 'how' to pass is a skill that can be taught-- knowing "when," and 'to whom' are, to quote Mark Twain, 'the difference between being struck by lightning or a lightning bug." What Kobe is doing epitomizes the quiescent elegance of the game-- he is scoring with the jump shot and from the foul line. Against the New Orleans people (coached by former Laker great Byron Scott), Kobe went 18-for-18 from the line. He was, from the field, 16-for-29. And that's on jump shots. Who, in the history of the game, has done this? No disrespect meant to Wilt-- what he did for the game cannot be quantified. But remember, Wilt averaged 50.1 PPG on shots taken from five feet away from the basket. Kobe is averaging over fifty on jump shots under duress. How can this be? Because the guy is fundamentally sound--obsessively so! Consider this as you're studying him:
- 1. Pristine footwork
- 2. Use of the 'shot fake'
- 3. Pull-up jump shots
- 4. Use of the spin dribble to create space, avoid contact and negate the 'help'
- 5. The two-foot jump stop.
Bryant's commitment to fundamentals and the sanctity of his execution sets him apart. Every aspect of his offensive game is enriched through fundamentals and sound basketball principles. His approach to offensive basketball is practical, realistic and effective. What, then, defines, offensive basketball execution in one-on-one situations-- what commonalities exist amongst great offensive players? Here are three common aspects: -
They unbalance the defender (with a job, shot fake or ball fake) to create an advantage - Once the advantage is created, they exploit it cleverly and concisely - They initiate the contact with defenders-- think: first strike capability.
Bryant's dribble attack sequences emanate from a precise ability to move defenders-- to bring them either upright in their stance-- or, encourage them to shift their body weight. The moves may be 'flashy' at times,. but they are founded on solid basketball pedagogy. Which brings me to Jerry West (career scoring average: 27.1 PPG.) The Lakers, during the West/Baylor years had two primary scorers: West and Baylor. And, when Baylor retired, that responsibility fell to the underrated Gail Goodrich. (I've always been a Goodrich fan; aside from the fact we have the UCLA connection, he was one of the best high school players to ever come out of Los Angeles.) Stopping West/Baylor was always the key to beating the Lakers-- this was no secret. But, who ever stopped them? And West, who had but one move, only went to his left with the same frequency that Limbaugh is actually right. Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn: "...ball in to Wilt, he swings it left side to West...two bounce dribble, jumper...GOOD..Mister Clutch." Hearn coined the metaphor, "frozen rope' to immortalize West's 'lack of arc' jump shot. Baylor and West are the spiritual antecedents of Bryant-- and he has tapped into "Zoë' of their basketball energy. They are his basketball fathers. His game combines the fine-tuned elements of both. Bryant's mid-range and pull-up jump shot is pure Jerry West. His shot fake, spin and 'step-through' is pure Elgin Baylor.
He isn't part of some new generation of basketball player that's turning the game into a 'hip-hop' club; but instead, his game is a sacred homage to men who bask on the pantheon of basketball greatness. West, nor Baylor were ever called selfish--and, they shot the ball all the time. Scoring, in basketball, is not democratic-- it is meritocratic.