Saturday, December 05, 2015

Separated at Birth

On Thursday, December 3rd, page D5 of the Washington Post dealt exclusively with two men, neither of whom is from the DC area. They happen to be two of the greatest sports icons of their generation, and two of the greatest competitors in the history of sport. Neither one has retired, but both have long since passed their primes. And now, finally, they are publicly coming to grips with that fact.

Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant turned professional in the same year, 1996. They became champions of their sport, over and over again, spanning a lengthy period, and continued to amass accolades through 2013, when Woods was named for the 11th time as the PGA Player of the Year and Bryant was named for the 11th time as a member of the First Team All-NBA team. On the playing field, both set lofty goals that they came close to reaching, but never will. In Woods’ case, it was to defeat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major Championships (Woods won 14, the second most in history), and in Bryant’s case it was to equal or exceed Michael Jordan’s collection of six NBA Titles (Bryant will be forced to stop at five).

For Woods and Bryant, their celebrity extends way beyond their accomplishments as athletes. To begin, they are known for their similar personalities: driven beyond compare, ferociously intense, reserved with fellow competitors and the media, impatient with anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. Sadly, they are also known for their sexual infidelities. Bryant was once charged by the authorities with sexual assault stemming from an incident that allegedly occurred when his wife was pregnant. In connection with the same matter, Bryant resolved a civil suit with a written admission that “I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” As for Woods, he became a punch line after the extent of his extramarital sex life was publicly revealed over a period of weeks at the end of 2009. Reportedly, he paid $100 million to divorce his wife, later took up with another celebrity (skier Lindsey Vonn), but watched that relationship end as well due to his own further infidelities.

Until recently, Bryant and Woods were additionally linked by their willingness to deny the inevitability of their declines as athletes. While their bodies clearly gave out a couple of years ago, they spoke publicly as if a return to greatness is just around the corner. Bryant is healthier now than he’s been in the last couple of years, and indeed he has been hoisting up an incredible number of shots as if he still thinks he plays on a Hall of Fame level. In reality, though, his shots rarely go in the basket. Woods has spent the last couple of years enduring the same pathetic cycle: having surgery, rehabbing his body, insisting that he is getting his game back to form, performing poorly when he finally gets the chance to play tournaments, and then getting reinjured. In Woods’ case, the only victim of his spectacle has been his own personal reputation as a player. In Bryant’s case, his decision to monopolize the ball long after his skills have left him has caused his team to become one of the league’s worst; the once-proud Lakers now have a record of 3-16, and have the dubious distinction of being the one team that has lost to the 1-19 Philadelphia 76ers.

When I chronicle all these facts, I shouldn’t be surprised that Bryant and Woods have so many detractors, even haters. Woods, in particular, has been the subject of scorn, perhaps because his sport is associated with gentility, and Tiger has never been Mr. Congeniality, even when he was in his prime. Considering the general level of schadenfreude in our society, I suspect that Tiger’s recent comebacks have given rise to no shortage of glee, as he stumbled his way to one missed cut after another despite having proclaimed during pre-tournament interviews that his golf game was on the right track. Given all the Laker haters in this country, it would be reasonable to assume that that Kobe’s nightly egg-laying tour has similarly given rise to laughter in arenas all around the country. People enjoy it when arrogant superstars ultimately get their comeuppance.

Supposedly, it’s all about karma. And indeed, as long as Kobe and Tiger were in denial, you got the impression that their careers would continue to go deeper and deeper into the tank. But just in the past week, the script changed. Kobe announced his retirement, effective at the end of this season, and he did so with style. In a poem that was submitted to a public website, Kobe provided an ode to his fans: “You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream. And I’ll always love you for it. But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.” Tiger, for his part, was more prosaic, but the point was the same. On Tuesday, he spoke to the media about how his body has reached the point where all he can do is walk, and he has no timetable for a return to competitive golf. “There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards,” he admitted, after undergoing three procedures on the same part of his back in the past 18 months. But then he added, that with 79 PGA Tour victories and 14 Major Championships, “if that’s all it entails, then I’ve had a pretty good run.”

A pretty good run indeed. During the 12 years that elapsed between his first Major victory and the time that his marital infidelities were revealed to the world, Tiger played golf at a higher level than it’s ever been played. He made Jack Nicklaus look like a plodder by comparison, and that’s no small task. Tiger was a gladiator – a guy who would will himself to a dramatic victory when he wasn’t playing particularly well, and lap the field when he was. He was must see TV, and may I add – his was a refreshing face in a sport that was as white as a hotel sheet. Personally, I view myself as a golf fan today who enjoys watching minor tournaments when I have a few spare minutes and greatly enjoy the Majors. But I owe my fandom to one man and one man only, and his name is Tiger Woods.

His Doppelganger, Mr. Bryant, has never been quite as successful. Nobody has ever claimed, for example, that Kobe is the best of all time. Top five? That’s a stretch. Top ten? Probably. Top twelve? Definitely. But he was not in Tiger’s league as a winner. And yet that’s no indictment, for if you are a basketball player and your name isn’t Bill Russell or Michael Jordan, you can’t be in that league – but you can still be viewed as an all-time great who in the words of Charles Barkley has been a “privilege and an honor” to watch.

This past Wednesday in my home town, Kobe showed up with a resignation that the sun was setting on his career. Most likely, he expected to play the clown once again in what would be surely be another Laker defeat. But strangely enough, he walked into a lovefest, and he was the beloved. I could tell something was up as I passed by the arena on the way to the subway during my evening commute. I saw so many jerseys bearing the name “Bryant” that it felt like I was living in LA. When I turned on the game after coming home, the DC sports fans were loudly and repeatedly chanting “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.” As if each fan was personally responsible for lifting up his aging legs, Bryant responded with 31 points, while leading his team to a four point victory over a squad that had beaten LeBron James in its previous game. Asked later if he was surprised about the crowd’s reception, Bryant responded “Yes, I thought everybody hated me. It’s really cool, man.”

Say what you want about the problems with our nation’s capital, but this past Wednesday night, there was no better place to be than inside DC’s Verizon Center. Whether you are a fan of the Lakers or the Wizards, or just a basketball aficionado, if you showed up at that arena, the odds are that you were expressing love for Kobe Bryant. You were practicing what is the essence of religion: thanking your benefactor. For surely, all true basketball fans would have to recognize that a competitor like Kobe Bryant is truly one of our benefactors.

I’ll sign off now and let everyone get back to the obsession with violence that seems to be engulfing our society. But I wanted to take some time this morning to recognize that there is more to life than fighting wars – be they against infidels, guns, terror, or whatever. There is also time for play – and for playing games with the eye of the Tiger and the joy of a warrior. Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods came into our lives at around the same time and will likely leave the public stage at the same time as well. But during the interim, they demonstrated what it means to “leave it all” on the playing field. Let the haters laugh at the demise of their careers and mock them for their personal shortcomings. I, for one, intend to think positive thoughts about them – not as role models, but as gladiators. They have made me a bigger fan of their sports and of sport generally. And I encourage each of you, if you get the chance, to watch them play live, and applaud them for their efforts. While there may be karma for athletes with fidelity problems, there is surely also karma for fans who know how and when to express gratitude.

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