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Accepting the Best and Worst of Kobe Bryant

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

There’s only about one thing you can say about Kobe Bryant that no one will argue with: He’s the topic of many an argument. The combination of his personality, his successes and failures, his strengths and his flaws, his team and the way he played in the age he played in all have gone on to make him, perhaps, the most debated NBA player of all time.

In some sad way, then, it’s appropriate the way he announced his retirement and the way the world reacted it to. He broke The Players’ Tribune page with a poem. Kevin Durant raged about how the media has been treating the fallen star. Kevin Pelton wrote about how he wasn’t a top 10 player in history and was scorned by the masses for it.

Stephen A. Smith railed on ESPN’s SportsCenter about how the Los Angeles Lakers had done Kobe a disservice by not giving him a team that could compete. All while he continued a season that’s on pace to be one of the worst statistical disasters in the history of the league. And that completely ignored the part that Bryant played in that particular team being assembled.

Whatever the content, the one thing that everyone has in common when it comes to discussing Kobe Bryant is passion, which is appropriate because for better or worse, he always played with that. And, if we’re being perfectly honest, there was plenty of both.

There was plenty of better, and there was no shortage of worse.

He’s the third-best scorer in NBA history, but he also is the all-time leader in missed shots.

He won one MVP and two Finals MVPs. He was named to 17 All-Star Games, 11 All-NBA First Teams, two Second Teams and another Third Team. He was a nine-time First Team All-Defensive selection, but even his own coach, Phil Jackson, said he made a lot of those on reputation. (And if we’re being honest here, he’s not the only one.)

He was the closest thing to Michael Jordan…

But he was never Michael Jordan. A forgery can never be the Mona Lisa, no matter how close it comes.

He scored 81 points in a game, and his fans made it into a mantra. As a starter, he’s had another 23 where he failed to reach double digits.

He won five rings, but three of them were with Shaquille O’Neal as the best player on the team. But then again, Kobe, especially in the last one, might have been the best second-best player in Finals history.

The Lakers built another champion around him after O’Neal left. And Bryant has the legitimate claim to the best player and team leader on those teams — which still matches as many as LeBron James has had.

But it’s still only two.

Some argue he was a ball hog. And he was. But he was one heck of a passer for a ball hog. For all his porcine tendencies, he’s still a great distributor. He is, after all, 29th all-time in assists, and the world’s only member of the 30,000-point, 6,000-rebound, 6,000-assist club (though, James will probably pass him in a couple of years.)

And of the players with 6,000 assists in league history, Bryant’s 4.1 field goal attempts per assist ranks the highest. And before you scream “ball hog” too loud and with too much enthusiasm, Jordan’s was 4.36; he just didn’t have as many dimes as Bryant did.

Bryant has a whopping 32,683 points and counting, most ever by a guard. But he also only has a true shooting percentage of 55.2, eighth among the 14 players who’ve scored 25,000 — but still slightly better than Tim Duncan’s at 55.1.

He’s fourth all-time in turnovers. But he made us appreciate the Kobe assist as well.

He does things like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpzksBMG7iw

But he also does things like this:

Since 2001, with the shot clock off and the game on the line, Kobe has drained 47 shots to tie or take the lead. And he’s missed 111 more.

He’s run players out of town. He’s run coaches out of jobs. But he’s also stood up for teammates, brought coaches back and defended teammates under fire.

He’s a jerk, but he’s the Lakers’ jerk, dadgummit. And he’s earned the right to be one. And he’s one of the most admired and loved players internationally in NBA history.

Here’s the thing about Kobe Bryant. Don’t try and find the balance. Don’t worry about the in between. Every great thing about him is true, and all the flaws are there. He’s like a beautiful woman with a mole on her face. You can’t help but admire her beauty, but you just wish she’d remove the mole.

Every great thing you can say about Kobe is true. And every flaw is real. It’s only when you accept both that you can truly appreciate what he is. Over time, like with Angelina Jolie, the “mole” can even become part of the attraction.

Where he ranks and whether it matters is just talk for talk’s sake. It doesn’t change who he is or what he’s done. Those who appreciate him do, and those who don’t, won’t. Whatever else he was, Kobe was a force on the court, a generational player and a joy to watch.

Kobe Bryant may be a ball hog, but he’s the greatest ball hog to ever play.

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