Is Kobe Bryant just like a cranky, arrogant Hollywood movie star? Or worse?
With the first round of the NBA playoffs in full swing, I've found myself absorbed in the sports pages more than ever, which is what drew me the other day to a surprisingly heartfelt lament from my colleague T.J. Simers, who in the course of assessing Lakers star Kobe Bryant's often chilly and contemptuous attitude, asked the question: "I know why Kobe is angry and unhappy with me, but what's he got against everyone else?"
T.J. said that Bryant plays a game for a living, "but there is no joy in his play, no indication that he's having a good time, no exuberance.... He struts out on the court when the starters are introduced without a glance, handshake or anything else directed to his teammates -- as if he's just arrived and now they can play the game." Even though Bryant has won innumerable games with buzzer-beating jump shots and helped earn the Lakers four NBA titles, outside of L.A. he is viewed as a gifted basketball player who has a heart of stone.
My 11-year-old son is a die-hard basketball fan, but while he respects Kobe's amazing skills, he has far more affection for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, who to him display a passion and a playful exuberance that Kobe lacks. As my son often says: "It's hard to like someone who always looks like he's mad." Maybe that's why many top sportswriters, starting with ESPN Sports Guy Bill Simmons, routinely disparage Bryant for his arrogance and selfish play (when Kobe scored 61 points against the woeful Knicks, Simmons noted: "THREE ASSISTS AND NO REBOUNDS. Talk about a team guy"). There's even a I Hate Kobe Bryant Facebook page devoted to fan diatribes against Bryant.
But what struck me most about T.J.'s column, which painted a picture of a star who always looks upset, isn't approachable, holds the media in contempt and seems full of distrust and disdain, was how much that description reminded me of Hollywood stars like Russell Crowe and Sean Penn, who go around with a perpetual chip on their shoulders, unable to show any joy or take any delight in their own line of work. Like Kobe, Crowe always looks like he's mad while Penn is routinely grim and humorless, even when he accepted a best actor Oscar last year for his starring role in "Milk."
I'd be the first to admit that there aren't always exact comparisons when it comes to stacking up athletes against showbiz personalities. But I'd argue that we give far more love to the personalities who exude an air of self-deprecation, grace and humility. The great icons of sports, from Willie Mays to Magic Johnson to LeBron, have played the game with unbridled joy. In their own way, our favorite actors have this trait as well. There was always a mischievous gleam in Paul Newman's eye, the same gleam you see from Jack Nicholson, George Clooney and Robert Downey Jr.
They let us know that they are having fun. You never got that from Brando, William Holden or George C. Scott, who were among the best actors of their day, but were so prickly and full of self-loathing about their own craft that they pushed us aside, uncomfortable with any acclaim. You could easily argue that Kobe, like Penn and Crowe, has a lot in common with Tiger Woods, who strikes many fans as similarly chilly and remote, despite all of his recent efforts at image rehabilitation.
In virtually every instance, it's hard to get past their chilly exteriors because they refuse to show any vulnerability. Fans are suckers for vulnerability. It's why we always open our hearts to stars who've become ill or infirm or show up at Oscar time when it looks as if it might be their final bow on the stage; think about Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne or Peter O'Toole, who basked in the glow of a prolonged outpouring affection from their peers that wasn't always evident earlier in their careers.
It's no secret that fans are fickle, but our adoration for stars is often even more elusive and mysterious than that. Why is it, for example, when it comes to late-night TV, that Jay Leno has the higher ratings but David Letterman remains the clear media favorite? Not to mention the fact that when the NBC "Tonight Show" succession plan crashed and burned, Conan O'Brien was greeted with a huge wave of support, even though far more viewers tuned in for Leno?
These are not entirely answerable questions, though it's unassailably clear that Leno and Letterman are TV's version of Yankees stars Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. They are all titans, but it's Letterman and Jeter who are beloved, perhaps for the way they play the game, perhaps for their easy insouciance, while it is Leno and A-Rod (despite their huge contracts) who inspire the least amount of love, always coming off as slightly bland, robotic and carefully controlling. To put it in a word: manufactured (which is a nice way of saying "fake").
Stardom is such an ineffable thing. Everyone thought Jude Law was going to be a star, but it never quite happened. Who knows why? Kevin Costner was a huge star, but his marriage fell apart -- there was an incident with a hula dancer -- and suddenly that special gritty charm he had (remember how great he was as the aging, all-too-knowing ballplayer in "Bull Durham"?) simply evaporated, like the puffy cloud of chalk dust that LeBron tosses up in the air every night before his Cavaliers games.
Crowe was going to be this generation's Steve McQueen, but just as soon as he won his Oscar for "Gladiator" and seemed to have the world at his fingertips, well, he slowly started to let it slip away. Was it really because he behaved badly, like the time he threw that phone at the hotel clerk? Was it because he packed on some pounds? Because he took some bad parts? Those are mysteries that remain unsolved, but inside Hollywood, no one is betting that "Robin Hood" is going to instantly turn things around.
All I can say is that if stardom is hard to achieve, it's even harder to hang on to once you've got it. Everyone thought Ben Affleck, both handsome and smart, would be a huge star, but he turned out to be like the young baseball phenom who had a couple of big seasons, then washed out when the league discovered he couldn't hit that slider on the outside corner. Instead, it was his less-flashy counterpart Matt Damon who proved he had the chops to make it in the big show. Joaquin Phoenix has more talent than about 83 other young actors combined, but he's even flakier than Ron Artest and Dennis Rodman combined, so no one's expecting that he's going to be playing a high-flying superhero anytime soon.
Nicole Kidman has great acting chops, but she isn't a star. Why not? The simple answer is that we respond more to actresses who exude warmth and vulnerability, which is why Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon are stars, while Kidman ends up with the art-house roles. As I've said before, she's too chilly and distant for the multiplex mainstream.
Jeff Bridges isn't a big star, but he's a gamer, like the Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones or the Angels' Torii Hunter, beloved by his peers for respecting his craft and doing everything the right way. It's why Bridges won the best acting Oscar this spring. He gave a helluva performance in "Crazy Heart," playing the country music equivalent of an over-the-hill slugger trying to hang on for one more season, but he got the Oscar not just for the role but for his work ethic. Whenever I heard people in the industry talk about Bridges, it wasn't just to offer praise for his acting, but for the way he behaved on movie sets, for being a class act to everyone, whether they were a fellow actor or the lowliest grip in the crew.
Those are the little things that make reputations. In the reverse, you could tell that no one in the business was rooting for Jason Reitman to win for best director for "Up in the Air" (not that he actually had a chance anyway) largely because he was perceived as trying to take all the bows for concocting the film's story, even though another screenwriter shared credit for the finished script.
So maybe it's the little things that shape and shift our perceptions of stars, whether it's what happened to Tom Cruise after he took that fatal leap on Oprah's couch or the way Phil Mickelson joyously hugged his wife, who's battling breast cancer, after he won the Masters. If Tiger had won, he would have had to hug his caddy. Tiger's wife has flown the coop after he brazenly ruined their marriage. He may win plenty more golf tournaments, but it'll be a long time before we'll be looking forward to sharing those triumphs with him.
The same goes for Kobe. He's the greatest player of his era, but like Crowe or Penn or Cruise, for all his talent, he's missing that mysterious chromosome in his DNA that allows the kind of vulnerability that makes him unabashedly beloved. In 2003, the Miami Heat retired Michael Jordan's jersey, even though he'd beaten them like a drum over and over during his career. It's a sign of true regard when an opposing team retires an opponent's jersey, the equivalent of one of those spontaneous standing ovations at the Oscars.
But can anyone ever imagine an opponent doing that for Kobe? As one NBC sportswriter put it: "The only way the Phoenix Suns would hang a Lakers No. 8 or No. 24 from the rafters is if Bryant was still wearing the thing."
Photo: Kobe Bryant, left, argues with a referee after a foul called on him during the first half of an April 4th game against the San Antonio Spurs in Los Angeles.
Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press