Actually, it’s probably true of watching elite-level success in any occupation though it seems doubtful that there is celebrity attached to a top surgeon not on Oprah or CNN. Chances are a big-time scientist does not ever have to worry about being mobbed by adoring fans at the mall.
But for guys like Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, success is usually a very strange thing. In fact, it seems as if there is something about both men that makes others do things they wouldn’t normally do in hope of being noticed. Oh yes, Kobe and Phil make regular folks act brave.
Think about it—if you saw Jackson or Kobe on the street chances are you might shout something to them, or even stop and ask a question. Better yet, you might even ask for an autograph or a handshake. And yes, this is odd. It is especially odd because no matter what Jackson or Bryant have accomplished, they must be accountable to complete strangers.
Who do you have to be accountable to?
Yes, with great power comes great responsibility… or whatever it is that Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben taught us. The rules are different successful sports stars whether they like it or not.
For instance, look at Jackson. At 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon he was obligated to answer some question from the Los Angeles and Philly media on topics that he probably never contemplated. Like had he ever thought about the significance of owning the all-time record for victories in Lakers’ history? After all, with the 98-91victory over the 76ers at the Wachovia Center on Friday night, Jackson needs one more win to tie Pat Riley with 533 regular-season victories.
Does Jackson think about that kind of stuff?
Not in the least?
“It’s just a matter of hanging around and showing up to work. That’s 90 percent of it… who said that, Woody Allen?”
Indeed that was Woody Allen who astutely pointed out that 90 percent of life was just showing up. The other 10 percent, perhaps, is left for answering questions and filling out paperwork.
Jackson is the only person in North American professional sports to win 10 championships as a coach. Certainly it helps that all he had to do was “show up” and coach a pair of teams with players Michael Jordan, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, but Jackson also won an 11th title as a coach of the CBA's Albany Patroons when his star was Frankie J. Sanders.
The J. stood for "Jumpshot."Still, after six titles with Jordan and the Bulls and four in Los Angeles, Jackson is asked to ponder which team he should most be linked to.
Again, it’s doubtful Jackson has ever mulled an answer to anything remotely close to that question. After all, his legacy is pretty safe with both franchises.
“There's a generation of people that identify with the Showtime Lakers of the ‘80s and similarly with the '90s Chicago teams,” Jackson said. “I don't know if you can say we're the dominant team of this decade, but we're pretty close. So I'm sure there's a whole generation of kids who see me only as the Lakers coach. They're not familiar with the Bulls at all.”
Yeah, yeah… which is it, Bulls or Lakers?
“I'd have made the jacket with both sides—one side the Lakers, one side the Bulls,” Jackson smiled.
Jackson, though, comes from a time when the art of thoughtful give-and-take was part of being a living and breathing person. It actually mattered what people thought about certain topics whether they were an athlete or not. Sure, guys like Jackson were always asked for their opinions on a bunch of subjects simply because he’s famous and famous people, for some reason, have opinions that matter more than others. It’s the same deal with all the Lakers, because, as forward/reality-TV star Lamar Odom said, “Everyone on this team is Hollywood.”
Odom is right about that, but when it comes to the Lakers there’s one star shinier than the rest.
Now I heard stories about Michael Jordan’s days in Chicago where the reporters that covered the team rarely got a chance to stand next to the guy they were writing about. Sometimes, the stories go, they had a chance to shout questions at him as if he were a president walking across the South Lawn to Marine One. Most of the time Jordan planted himself in the middle of the practice gym or locker room and he was engulfed by cameras and recorders. He was in the middle of that pile up somewhere and the only hope for a lot of writers was to hear one little nugget or word from the man himself.
Toward the end when Jordan was playing for the Wizards, he moved his post-game tête-à-tête to a conference room where questions were shouted as if he were some Hollywood diva ensnared in some controversy. Cameras flashed and shouted voices collided in midair and made an awful mess of white noise. Sometimes Spike Lee was waiting in the wings.
That wasn’t quite the case with Kobe on Friday night at the Wachovia Center, though between the snap shots from camera phones and the boom-mic men blindly walking backwards, it would have been easy for someone to get run over.
All that just to hear what a kid from Lower Merion Township had to say about basketball.
Actually, the brunt of the questioning was focused on the back-and-forth scoring showdown between Bryant and Allen Iverson during the third quarter of Friday night’s action. Suddenly, for a handful of minutes, it was as if it was 2001 again for Iverson. For Bryant, however, it was just another Friday night. Nevertheless, the awful truth that no one really wanted to admit—especially Bryant—was that as soon as the Lakers’ star switched over to guard Iverson, the show stopped.
There is only so much room in the spotlight.
“He’s a scorer, he and I both,” Bryant said. “That’s what we do. We can score when we’re 70 years old.”
These days Bryant does a little more.
“It’s evident that he is one of the best ever to do it,” Iverson said. “He goes out there night in and night out and plays the same way every night.”
And every night he gets wrapped in a cocoon of otherworldliness. People steel up some nerve and get brave. They ask questions and snap pictures. They want to ask questions and hear answers no matter how mundane they are.
They want a moment where someone spectacular shows some humanness no matter how bizarre the setting really is.