By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 08/24/08
As much as I enjoy sports and respect professional athletes for their athletic prowess, I’ve never been much of a fan of them off the court. For the most part, I find them totally egoistic, self-serving, and intellectually vapid, much like most Hollywood types.
There have been some notable exceptions to this generalization. I think of some greats like Bill Russell, John Stockton, Andre Agassi, Julius Erving, Jerry Rice, and Larry Bird. They were not only phenomenal athletes on the court, but they appeared genuine, sincere, and thoughtful off the court. They were more than just athletes, they were the type of people you wouldn’t mind having your children emulate and lionize.
One prominent athlete I’ve had little regard for has been Kobe Bryant, guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. He came onto the NBA scene with a splash in the post Michael Jordan era when the NBA was hungrily seeking a new “face” for the league. As a prodigious high school player in Philadelphia, Bryant opted to bypass college and go directly to the pros.
His play has become legendary, and his highlight reel is nearly as full of spectacular plays as Dr. J’s (Julius Erving) and Michael Jordan’s. But as a youngster in the NBA, it’s all too evident that the accolades heaped upon him went to his head, and he became the epitome of self-centered, pampered professional athletes. His antics off the court have been a deterrent to holding him in higher regard.
But to many, especially youth, Bryant is an icon of “coolness.” His jersey, the Laker yellow #24, is the top selling NBA jersey, as is evidenced even on the streets of Pocatello.
In light of his “coolness,” it was extremely gratifying to hear his interview with Chris Collinsworth, a former wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals, on NBC this week. Collinsworth asked Bryant, “Tell the story when you first got your USA uniform.” To which Bryant responded, “Well, I had goosebumps and I actually just looked at it for awhile. I just held it there and I laid it across my bed and just stared at it for a few minutes; just because as a kid growing up this is the ultimate, ultimate in basketball.”
Collinsworth continued, “Where does the patriotism come from inside of you? Historically, what is it?” Bryant answered, Well, you know it’s just our country, it’s... we believe is the greatest country in the world. It has given us so many great opportunities, and it’s just a sense of pride that you have; that you say ‘You know what? Our country is the best!’”
Collinsworth took it a step further, “Is that a ‘cool’ thing to say, in this day and age? That you love your country, and that you’re fighting for the red, white and blue? It seems sort of like a day gone by.” Bryant replied, “No, it’s a cool thing for me to say. I feel great about it, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I mean, this is a tremendous honor.”
Bryant climbed several notches in my esteem for him with those comments. Here is the icon of “cool” for youth, not just in our country, but as we see in Beijing, around the world, and he’s saying it’s cool to love America, and recognize American exceptionalism for what it is.
The founding principles of this nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and our uniquely determined dependence on deity for our very existence as a country, has made us the envy of the world. Of equal significance, is our adherence to principles of freedom and liberty even in our economic system. Why else would China, a nation with nearly 4 times our population, and an economy of roughly 1/5th the size of the U.S. go into the Beijing Olympics declaring openly that their primary goal was to achieve parity with the U.S.? I for one would be much more impressed by a move to achieve civil rights parity with the U.S.
For some reason, many Americans who enjoy the fruits of freedom here don’t seem to appreciate enough the tree from which those fruits grew. They lament a purported fall from grace and somehow think it’s “cool” to belittle and disparage our country. They point incessantly at the great moral evil of slavery, while failing to concede the monumental moral victory of our nation in eradicating it. In my estimation, not only is it possible to love America and all she stands for while being critical of politicians and policy, but I think that is what’s meant by dissent being the ultimate form of patriotism: a devotion to America and a commitment to her perpetuity so great that we speak out in opposition to those policies that we’re convinced challenge the role of America as an ensign of freedom to the world.
I’m grateful for Kobe Bryant’s expressed love of country, and am equally grateful that he never went to the Obama’s church or we might never have heard them.