Deep in the heart of the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, the last of a dying breed fights the winless battle. Does Black Mamba’s last gasp mirror the changing conception of man in our society?
It would be easy for Kobe Bryant to quietly sail off into the sunset. He has earned it. Five NBA championships, one MVP, two scoring titles, two Finals MVPs, 16-time NBA All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, 12-time NBA All-Defensive team. His legacy is set in stone as the second best shooting guard to ever play in the NBA. Now, in the twilight of his career, he is entrenched in a team with no other options. The Lakers lost their lottery pick to injury. Los Angeles missed out on every star free-agent who hit the market last year. Steve Nash, the Hall-of-fame point guard who was supposed to be Bryant’s running mate is playing golf instead of wearing the purple and gold. Yet, Kobe still attacks.
Alpha Males do not fall under the “Keep Getting Them Checks” category. They fight to the bitter end. They make stand after stand until physically they are unable. Somehow, someway, Bryant is finding a way to stay relevant. He leads the league in scoring, despite playing with ghastly teammates. Yes, he is jacking up shots as if he was playing pop a shot at the local arcade, but that’s what Alpha Males do.
Bryant is not the first to shoulder the burden of an all or nothing effort to keep a team afloat. He is a descendant of a long line of Alpha Males who led and won. The Patriarch of the family is Bill Russell, and the rest of the family tree reads of the most determined, win-at-any-cost, toughest SOBs who ever played the game: Willis Reed, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan. These are the Alpha Males. The ultimate competitor who teeters on the verge of sociopathic tendencies to scratch and claw for that prized championship.
The Alpha Male has fought both teammates and opponents for a title. The Alpha Male has used mind games for a title. The Alpha Male steps onto the court day in and day out, preseason, regular season, post season, off-season, duck season, and will do everything in his power to let you know what he already knows: He is the Alpha Male.
They all have their anecdotes, stories of how they have forced their way into greatness. Bird and Magic became friends off the court during the peak of their greatness, but on the court, they would rip the other’s heads off if they could. Russell used pure determination to collect two NCAA titles, one Olympic title and 11 NBA titles in a 15-year span, all while dealing with racism and bigotry in every city he played in. Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech is the Alpha Male Hall of Fame speech.
Bryant is no different. After paving a new path for perimeter players by declaring early for the NBA draft out of high school, he has spent his entire career reaching heights that only few have climbed. All the while, doing it his way. Bryant, after winning three titles as second banana to Shaquille O’Neal, could no longer stomach the role and forced management to choose. Bryant won out, and was now the Alpha Male. As Alpha Male, he scored 81 points, won 2 championships without Shaq and became the most celebrated Laker, not named Magic Johnson.
As I watch Bryant play, I look at the landscape of the NBA, and ask who’s next?
This generation of players does not feel the need to earn its keep. The desire to step on to the court and prove they belong or to prove who is The Best.
Fox News would call it the “Wussification of America.” Nick Adams, author of American Boomerang, told The Daily Caller, “All aspects of male culture have been called in to question,” Adams said. “Whether it’s gathering around on a Sunday afternoon to watch the football with a few friends, whether it is going to the range and shooting some guns, whether it is just being a male has now been really made suspect.”
In terms of the NBA, there is no desire to be the Alpha Male, because the Alpha Male is no longer a desired position.
You can look at the current crop, view the way they are groomed from grade school to AAU to college and finally the pros. Witness all the national attention at an early age. Hear about shoe companies taking vested interest in junior high athletes. Then it’s easy to see why these athletes don’t feel the need to fight for or want to be the Alpha Male. They have been given things their whole life. Their only desire is to be loved, admired, “become a brand.”
This is the reason we have super teams now. “The Big Three” never would have existed 20 years ago, but now the top NBA players don’t want to beat the player matched up against them, they want to befriend them with the hopes of joining forces sometime down the line. It is not about standing on your own and fighting and clawing to the death. It’s more about what is the easiest way, what is the most efficient way to win a championship.
The top players all looked at the throne Kobe owned, and they all found ways to pass. LeBron James bypassed Alpha Male status when he joined Dwyane Wade’s team. Wade did not want the status so he deferred to James to win back-to-back NBA championship. James Harden wanted to be a 6th man on Oklahoma City before he was forced to be the top player on Houston. Unlike Isiah Thomas, Chris Paul routinely plays facilitator in the crunch, setting up teammates instead of hitting the game winning shot. This might explain part of the reason the Clippers have still not made it past the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. It goes on and on and on.
So look again, look at the NBA landscape. Do you see an Alpha Male lurking in the tall grass waiting for the chance to pounce for the title? Or do you see an old-fashioned boys club, where everyone wants to be friends and play together and win a title together.
Is there anything wrong with that? No.
It’s a different world. Athletes no longer carry the DNA to win, by any means necessary. There’s a reason fights in the NBA are as scarce as Sixer fans, and it’s not the fines. Masculinity is no longer challenged nor prized on the court. Status and stature are no longer part of a player’s identity. Most fans do not care about the intensity of the athlete or the character of the athlete; they care about the name on the front of the jersey. Fans care about championships.
Also, what possibly could be gained from vying for the Alpha Male once Kobe Bryant relinquishes the crown? Have you seen the polarizing way in which Bryant has been depicted? “Bryant doesn’t make teammates better.” “Free agents don’t want to play with Kobe Bryant.” “Kobe Bryant takes too many shots.” Who would want to deal with that level of scrutiny day in and day out? In the 24-hour sports news cycle, everything is magnified. Could you imagine if the Alpha Males of days past played today? How different would each player’s legacy be? How many stories would emerge of how crazy they were to win?
In the end, the Alpha Male crown will be vacated because no one wants it.
The NBA doesn’t want someone to rise to the occasion either. Next week will mark the 10 year anniversary of the “Malice in the Palace” incident. The league has worked tirelessly to rid its unsubstantiated image that it is a league of thugs and misfits. It has tried to enforce a dress code to raise the bar and has levied fines for conduct detrimental to the team and league, but those were surface level efforts.
In the end, it has been this new brand of chummy basketball that has created a ratings bonanza for the league. It is family entertainment. The NBA is second to the NFL in regular season ratings. In October, the NBA signed a 9-year $24 billion deal. Money talks and the Alpha Male is walking, right out the door.
The conception of “the modern man” is changing dramatically as well. Back in June, Boston College’s Center for Work and Family released its fifth annual study on working dads. Over the last 40 years, fathers have tripled child care and house work. Since the Family Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993, offering paternity leave at the federal level, more and more dads are using it to do stereotypically “mom” jobs. In the Boston College study “more than 90% reported that they spent time caring for their new child and changing diapers, and more than 80% went food shopping, cleared the house and prepared meals.”
Sports has played a huge role in my life. It was and is one of the only avenues to communicate with my dad. Sports taught me about life, teamwork, hard work and also helped define the male figure. As the general definition of the male/father changes shouldn’t that coincide with that of the male athlete?
So now look at Kobe Bryant. Watch him fight for pride. Watch him compete for team mediocrity. Do you see someone who is past his prime, holding on to whatever shrouds of talent he still has?
Or do you see the Alpha Male, shouldering the burden of the last of a diminished tribe making one last rallying cry.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press/File)
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