Kevin Garnett Is Greater than Kobe Bryant

By Bob Hiller

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The big sports talk in Los Angeles these days is the retirement of Kobe Bryant. Next to the Golden State Warriors ridiculous 23-0 start, Kobe calling it quits is the biggest story in the NBA. The self-glossed “Black Mamba” is one of the five best shooting guards of all time and is arguably one of the ten best players to ever grace the hardwood. With five championships, seventeen all-star appearances, and an MVP award (only one?), Kobe was one of the most dominant players ever. His retirement from the game is the end of an era. Though it may seem like you would never want a player like this to go away, it is clearly time for Kobe to retire. His body is falling apart. He’s been playing at the highest possible level for 20 years and his body just cannot keep up. So, wisely, he’s announced his retirement at the end of this season.

Jolly ol’ St. Koch, the Taco Tuesday Team, and I were discussing the merits of Kobe’s announcement. The Godfather made an excellent point that Kobe’s announcement is a gift to this season’s Lakers. Let’s face it: the Lakers are terrible. So, it is hard for fans on the road to justify buying tickets when the Lakers come to town. But, now that this is the last chance to see Kobe, these are must-see games! Already on this past East Coast road trip, teams have had special, pre-game introductions celebrating Kobe’s legacy. This is good for the Lakers…this season.

There is something about the way Kobe is going about his retirement that is rubbing me the wrong way. Yes, he is drawing attention to the team and bringing in more ticket sales. But, what about next year? You see, as it turns out, there are a few other players on the Lakers this year who are no longer getting necessary playing time because people are paying to see Kobe. Sure, he’ll shoot 2 for 18, but it’s your last chance to see him put up four points! Meanwhile, players like D’Angelo Russell, the second overall draft pick in the 2015 draft, is sitting on the bench watching. He’s not getting the minutes he needs to learn the game. Sure, they are going to lose, but those minutes are still valuable for a young player’s growth.

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I heard on the radio the other day that Kobe doesn’t really show up for practice, the other players don’t gain much from his presence when he is around. He just shows up to play. This is fine for the fans, but bad for his teammates. Further, he’s putting his coach in a bad place because now Byron Scott must play Kobe, though it will hurt the young team’s chances to develop, let alone win. This makes the coach look bad and puts his job in jeopardy. The Lakers need to be thinking about the future of the franchise, player development, and team dynamics…not just Kobe. So, yes, Kobe has given the team a gift for the 2015-16 season, but what about next season and beyond?

Now, you might say, Kobe has done a lot for the league and deserves the accolades. He has a right to do what he wants. You have a point. But, a player should never be bigger than a team, especially in, say, a team sport! What is more, this is a great example of what happens when one’s rights trump their concern for others. Sure, Kobe may deserve to have all this attention and to take this all in, but by announcing his retirement at this point in the season, he’s hurting his teammate’s chances of growing on the court. As important as rights can be, exercising them can be utterly selfish and harmful to others. Theologically we could say that rights easily become idols.

I fear we have too many men like Kobe these days: selfish men who are more concerned with their rights than their neighbor’s. They would rather play the game on their terms for their glory despite what it will do to anyone else. Many men invest more into career success, image, and reputation than they do into their wives and families. Further, I am afraid, much like we see with Kobe, men have lost a sense of their responsibility to the next generation of men. We men have become a self-serving, cowardly group that wants nothing more than to sit down and watch football with a cold beer in hand while ignoring an entire generation of boys who have no direction into what it means to be a man. But, hey, we deserve it!

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As men, we need to recover a sense of responsibility and comradery with other men. Robert Bly, in his masterpiece Iron John, has argued quite convincingly that feminism has removed a necessary element of our society, that is, rites of initiation for boys to become men. We’ve left our boys to be raised only by their mothers with no strong male influence. Now, I place the utmost importance on the role of the mother. I have a phenomenal mom! But, moms were never meant to go at it alone. And, they certainly aren’t called to initiate boys into manhood. Though I’m not entirely sure what it looks like, I am more and more convinced that fathers and other men in our society need to recover the lost art of male initiation.

Perhaps we could start conversation by recovering and telling stories of men who do this well. Let’s start with another NBA player in the twilight of his career, Kevin Garnett. Like Kobe, Garnett was drafted right out of high school and has been playing for the better part of two decades. Also, like Kobe, he is one of the best players of his generation (though, he’s not quite as transcendent as Bryant). Last year, his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, traded away a fairly decent player to get Garnett back on their team. It was a strange move as Garnett is hardly the force he used to be. But, there is some genius on Minnesota’s end. You see, in trading for Garnett, the T-Wolves brought in one of league’s great leaders and motivators. They brought an older, more experienced player into a locker room full of youth. Their rookie star, Karl-Anthony Towns, has gone so far as to say that Garnett is his mentor.

Garnett may not get a ton of minutes (though he makes the most of what he does play), but he is working with all the young players, teaching them how to be better on and off the court.  He’s teaching them how to watch game-tape, how to prepare for games, how to make the most of their bench time, and so on. He’s treating these boys like men and initiating them into the way life works in the league. The Timberwolves will benefit immensely from the end of Garnett’s career as he passes on his wisdom to the next batch of players.

We need fewer men like Kobe, basking in their own selfish glory.  We need more men like KG who will initiate boys into manhood. As the dear brother, Rev. Tim Barkett, likes to say, “It’s time to man up!”

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