Tuesday, March 6, 2007

SuperStar Be: Kobe Bryant Be His Father's Revenge on the Country Game

I needed all this text to make my point, so I don't apologize. If you're going to skim, though, please do read the descriptions of "City" and "Country" ball.

The thought of this post has been heavily influenced by David Halberstam's seminal work, "The Breaks of the Game". David speculates, err, reports to his heart's content (or am I the only one who is suspicious about some of his conclusions?!)about all sorts of racial issues in basketball. But he fails to elucidate on the two types of game that were clashing in the NBA at the time. This is my, not Halberstam's, take on the tensions between the two styles:

"City" Basketball. To me, City means isolations, dribbling, a faster style of play, a greater ability to improvise, a lack of repetition. If you're the best player on the floor, you should get the ball and drive, every time. Paradoxically, despite the love of dribbling, it's usually practiced by those who played many games with others. Usually, players of city ball tend to favor style over substance. A coach of a successful City team tends to be underappreciated; City players can sometimes be overly artistic in temperment, and need to have their emotions more carefully managed.

"Country" Basketball. To me, Country means players in motion at all times, passing, a focus on fundamental play,running plays to perfection, and getting the ball to the open man, whoever he may be. If you're the open player on the floor, you should shoot, every time. Paradoxically, despite Country's fundamentally sound game, coaches of Country still overcoach them. Country would rather win ugly than lose pretty. A coach of a successful City team tends to be overappreciated; Country players are so fundamentally sound that they can do much more for themselves than they are allowed to do.

The descriptions of those two styles are pretty much "black ball" and "white ball"; or, if you prefer, "athletic" and "non-athletic", "And 1" and "college", etc. I played with a 5'7" white guy who could 360 dunk volleyballs in high school, so I'm certainly aware of the exceptions. Halberstam also notes the exceptions. (Maravich, black ball. Westphal, black ball. Interestingly, I can't recall Halbersam citing any black players who played "white ball" except maybe for Hollins, but I would certainly put Kareem in the "white ball" category for his fundamentally sound post moves.)

The 70's were pretty much a high point for the tension between the two styles. It appears to me that the two leagues were somewhat split, with the ABA being City and the NBA being Country. The ABA lost. Proponents of City ball were often booted and blackballed (a pun, unfortunately, in this context) out of the NBA for their lack of discipline both on and off the court. Most of the great playground legends such Earl "The Goat" Manningult and the "Helicopter" played around this time. It may have culminated in the series between the Blazers and Sixers, where the Blazers were mostly Country and the Sixers were mostly City. The Blazers won, giving Country ball proponents ammunition for at least 15 years. "See, maybe those City ballers can start at some positions, but if you want a championship, you need Country ballers!"

Joe Bryant was on that Sixers team, a talented scorer on a team full of them. He ended up leaving the NBA after a rather mediocre career, as a full proponent of the City game. Throughout the 80's, Country ball continued to reign in the person of Larry Bird. One can make an argument that even Magic Johnson, with his love for passing, had a lot of Country ball in him.

However, then Michael Jordan came on the scene. He proved that a City baller could lead a team to a championship. (Here's one for you conspiracy theorists though. Why was Phil Jackson given so much pub on that team as some sort of mastermind? He was fully a City coach, managing emotions. The offense system was Tex Winter's, not his. I honestly think that it may have been the last gasp of Country ball, trying to give Phil the credit over his City ballers.) That was the beginning of the end of Country ball's reign. It was officially over when Kobe arrived in the same short time span as Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady (nice 10-32 the other night, T-Mac, mostly on jump shots).

Unlike Joe, Kobe didn't get trapped behind the team's established star (Julius Erving for Joe). Unlike Joe, Kobe wasn't forced to try to play someone else's game. Unlike Joe, Kobe's team won the championship. Unlike Joe, when Kobe was seen as a ballhog, the people who saw him that way were forced out of the organization. And when Kobe's team first went to the Finals, it defeated the team coached by the ultimate Country star, Larry Bird.

I suspect that Joe Bryant taught Kobe well about minimizing his weaknesses, because City doesn't get a second shot. Unfortunately, perhaps he succeeded too well; his own son is now estranged from him, and Kobe's incident in Colorado reinforced to me one more thing. Kobe Bryant be...the Immigrant with Skills. Self-explanatory? That's what your eye drops wish. Excrutiating details later this week, plus the ever-beloved fan pictage. Peyton Manning's not the only one pictured in teenage girl birthday parties.

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