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The Illusion of the Elite

This isn't just about Kobe.  It's about running up scores, sportsmanship, and those players who simpy aren't everyone else.

On January 22, the Toronto Raptors watched helplessly as Kobe Bryant rained down 81 points upon an unsuspecting sports world.  Immediately there came torrents of phone calls into sports talk radio stations and monologues from every water cooler about one of two things:  one of sports' greatest performances ever, or one of sports' greatest injustices ever.  Selfishness, it's been said, isn't a virtue.

Forget the fact that the Lakers were behind in the first half.  Forget the fact that Bryant shot 60% from the field.  Forget the fact that 18 points came on shooting 90% from the free-throw line.  Forget that he was 7/13 from behind the arc.  He was selfish!  He only had 2 assists!  It's a team sport!  How can he take 46 shots?  Kobe is single-handedly ruining the sport of basketball!

When I last checked, when the game was in jeopardy you went to the guy who had the skills to win it.  For all those who are disgusted with Bryant's performance, what would you have him do?  Stop trying?  Pass the ball to players half as talented to make them feel make you feel better?

Scenario One

Phil:  Listen, Kobe, I want you to stop trying so hard, okay?  Smush and Kwame are starting to feel bad.

Kobe:  But coach, we're back in the game!  We were down by almost 20!

Phil:  I know, Kobe, but we can't have you winning this game single-handedly just because you're the most talented player on the floor.

Scenario Two

Kobe:  Coach, I gotta come outta the game.  I've scored 53 points, it's the end of the third, and we're up by six...we don't want to rub my performance in their faces.

Phil:  What?  You don't want to play?  The lead's only six, Kobe...

Kobe:  Yeah, but I've scored enough.  I'm sitting this one out.

No matter what your personal feelings about Bryant, the bottom line is that he did what he thought he had to do to win the game.  This is the kind of player I want playing on my team.

One argument against games like this has to do with sportsmanship.  You could argue that it isn't "good sportsmanship" to run up the score, or to score 81 points when 70 probably would have done the trick.  It's not "good sportsmanship" to tack on 3 more runs in the top of the eighth when you were already up 7-1.

My rebuttal is that this isn't little league, where you're not only teaching kids good sportsmanship but life lessons as well.  The men and women who play major-league sports are professionals, and if they don't want the score to be more out of hand than it already is then they should try doing something to stop it.  If you can't stop it...then you can't.  It happens, it's the nature of the beast, it doesn't make you any less of a human being to be whipped in a game of sport.  It doesn't make you a bad team.

In 2002, the Arizona Diamondbacks were getting their asses handed to them on a silver platter.  They didn't complain about running up the score.  Instead they pitched Mark Grace.  They realized that sometimes you just don't have it, and sometimes the other team does.  Grace continued to enjoy his time on the mound, seeming to remember that that he plays baseball for a living.  He pulled off a fantastic Mike Fetters impression and gave up a home run in the only inning of work he pitched during his 16-year career.

If a player is having one of the biggest games of their lives and decides to pull it back a little, that's great.  That's their prerogative.  If a team is leading by an insurmountable number of runs and takes in the reigns, that's good, too.  You never have to run it up.  But when a player, or a team, is on their game any certain day, it's not our place to tell them to stop showing up the other player or team.

You wouldn't tell your 4-year old to stop doing her multiplication tables because your 6-year old hasn't gotten them yet.  You wouldn't run slower in a 440 because you were blowing the competition away.  You wouldn't sacrifice your Rook because you wanted to make your opponent feel better about the Check Mate you were about to pull.  It's a competition.  It's a measure of who's better, even if it's just for that moment or that day.

If you don't want the score run up on you, don't do it on others.  Should you destroy your opponent from every conceivable angle, just know that someday it might happen to you and that you shouldn't whine about it.

In life, and in sports, there are individuals who quite simply just aren't everybody else.  They shouldn't be treated like everybody else.  These people are held to higher standards, just as they should be.  Higher standards in the sports world translates to bigger and better Kobe's 81.

When you begin to ask the great ones to stagger their performances, when you beg last season's World Series champions to be nice, who is it violating the code of sportsmanship?  When you ask the great ones to stop being great, you lose the elite.  When you lose the elite, you lose the draw of competition.  When you lose the spirit of competition, you achieve mediocirty.  There's a difference between parity and mediocrity.  Mediocrity doesn't draw fans, it doesn't make kids want to play the game, and it defeats the purpose of competition.

It's not about rubbing your opponent's face in the dirt, it's about being the best you can be.  You want to win, but you also want the competition.  That competition is what drives you to be better.  It's a circle that feeds on itself to keep the world of sports alive.  Selfishness, when used properly, is a virtue in sports as well as life.