Unlikely Role Model

December 15, 2009

Kobe Bryant's successful image rehabilitation is something for Tiger Woods to note these days.

Will Tiger Woods ever rebound from his catastrophic fall from grace? Let me answer that question this way: Last week I bought my son a Kobe Bryant jersey for Christmas.

Not sure of the connection? Stay with me.

For much of my life the sports team I followed most devotedly was the Los Angeles Lakers, starting with the 1971-72 Jerry West-Wilt Chamberlain-Gail Goodrich squad that won 69 games and the NBA title. Next came the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "Showtime" teams that won five championships in the 1980s -- a run of success that ended with Johnson's retirement in 1990 after being diagnosed with HIV. After a few years hiatus, the Lakers rebuilt around Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and by the end of the 1990s the team had reached basketball's mountaintop once again, winning three straight NBA titles starting in 2000.

Bryant was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods: a precocious athletic talent who turned professional at a young age, immediately took his place among his sport's best players, and (thanks to his good looks and winning personality) became one of corporate America's favorite pitchmen. I was a fan.

And then in 2003, Bryant was arrested and charged with rape. You may remember the details, but in case you've forgotten, the charges were eventually dropped after his alleged victim refused to testify. Before that happened, however, Bryant (joined by his wife) gave an emotional press conference in which he admitted to adultery, but not the assault.

Afterwards, the story became daily fodder for tabloid press and TV sports shows, as Bryant, playing for the Lakers while preparing to stand trial, flew all over the country trying not to miss any games, practices or court appearances, against the backdrop of prosecutors and defense attorneys holding competing, mostly infuriating, news briefings.

The entire mess soured my passion as a fan: first with Bryant, then with the Lakers, and finally with the entire NBA itself. One day, the question dawned on me: "Who needs this?" I quit pro basketball cold turkey. End of story, right?

Not quite. My son Johnny -- born, ironically, the same month Bryant was arrested -- has grown into a budding young sports nut. Since he was 3 he has started each day by watching the morning rerun of SportsCenter, memorizing every score of every game in every sport. He's now 6 and my little Rain Boy. Two Sundays ago in church we sat behind a couple who told us their oldest daughter had been accepted to the University of Richmond, to which Johnny replied, "You mean the Spiders?" and proceeded to astonish them with the scores of the school's last three football games.

Now, if you don't think Johnny's enthusiasm for sports isn't something I've always dreamed of -- indeed, that it doesn't bring tears to my eyes -- you're crazy. But there is one complication. Of all the athletes he could have chosen as his "favorite player," who do you think he picked?

Of course. Kobe Bryant.

At first, I ignored this development, figuring it would change as quickly as his preference for blueberry Pop Tarts over cinnamon. But it hasn't. Two years later he still loves Kobe, and will defend his greatness to anyone who thinks otherwise, particularly his friend Sandra, who is equally devoted to LeBron James. One person with whom he doesn't discuss Bryant is his father. Johnny asked me about Bryant once during a Lakers highlight and I told him I thought the NBA was "lame." But rather than dampening his enthusiasm for Bryant, all my response did was make Johnny question my sanity ("You love all sports, Dad. How can you not like basketball?"). We haven't talked about it since.

Until a few days after Thanksgiving, when I took a break from the Tiger Woods scandal to read the letter Johnny had written to Santa Claus. A Kobe Bryant jersey was No. 1 on his wish list. "Really?" I asked. "Yup," he said.

In the end, there was no dilemma. Six-year-old boys don't need to concern themselves with controversy, or allegations of sexual assault, or anyone's moral obligations. All my son knows about Kobe Bryant is that he is the best player on the best team in the NBA, and that he always seems to make the important shot when the game is on the line. He's cool. He's Johnny's hero. And I'm not going to mess with that.

Someday, my son will learn about the sadder episodes in Kobe Bryant's past. If he still cares about Bryant when that happens, and I'm still around, perhaps he and I will have a talk about it. Perhaps we won't. Whatever happens, Johnny can decide what it means and whether it changes his opinion of Bryant.

Either way, it's pretty telling that Bryant can now be defined by something other than the events of that summer six years ago. Like it or not, that's the nature of our society these days. We are quick to condemn our stars, quick to pore over every tawdry item about them in the tabloids. And yet we're just as quick in extending them a second chance. One minute they've been sworn off forever, the next their jersey is gift-wrapped and waiting under your Christmas tree.

Which brings us back to Woods. Will he rebound? Won't he rebound? That seems to be the topic of the moment. In case you're wondering, Johnny -- a devoted SportsCenter viewer, remember -- does have a lot of questions about Tiger these days. He senses the golfer is in some sort of trouble. He may even root for someone else the next time Woods plays, whenever that is.

Surely, he's not alone in that respect. But I suspect there are a lot of kids being born this month who will grow up to become golf fans and in six years will ask Santa Claus for a red Tiger Woods golf shirt.

What will all of us do then?

*Geoff Russell is the Editor-in-Chief of Golf World. *