Kobe’s been on a tear over the past week, prompting at least one to proclaim that he’s better than No. 23. Now whether folks think this position is right or wrong, is really immaterial. At this point in the game no one is better at what Kobe does. And off the top of my head I can only think of two people who are as good at what they do (or better) than Kobe is at what he does.

In a recent post, Lindell Singleton dissects what makes Kobe successful. Here I’m not talking about his work ethic, I’m talking about how he uses the dribble to create space, about his economy. Basketball is an art, but to a certain extent it is rocket science. Lindell:

Bryant’s dribble attack sequences emanate from a precise ability to move defenders– to bring them either upright in their stance– or, encourage them to shift their body weight. The moves may be ‘flashy’ at times,. but they are founded on solid basketball pedagogy.

Lindell’s argument is that Kobe is a direct descendant of old school basketball great Jerry West. I’m not sure I buy his argument that West was better than Jordan, but I don’t have a problem in tracing a line from West to West. Where I’d disagree is in Lindell’s closing:

[Bryant] isn’t part of some new generation of basketball player that’s turning the game into a ‘hip-hop’ club; but instead, his game is a sacred homage to men who bask on the pantheon of basketball greatness. West, nor Baylor were ever called selfish–and, they shot the ball all the time. Scoring, in basketball, is not democratic– it is meritocratic.

I understand what Lindell’s trying to do. There are a number of people who ignore Kobe’s success, claiming he’s self-centered, brash, and difficult to be around. And it doesn’t take much to make a move from this position to hip-hop, claiming that Kobe’s behavior is part of a much larger problem with the current NBA. Saying that Kobe isn’t turning the game into a ‘hip-hop’ club is really a short cut for “we shouldn’t treat Kobe as if he’s the same as these other selfish NBA players who care more about themselves than they do about the game.

But it’s an unfair one on two counts.

Hip-hop at its best is about taking what was, acknowledging it, and making it new again. It’s about taking someone like James Brown, and introducing him to an entirely new fanbase through the innovative use of sampling. It’s about lyrical dexterity and split-second improvisation. It is possible that Kobe IS hip-hop AND old-school at the same time. And given that Kobe actually DID cut a hip-hop record (eminently forgettable but still), I’d say it is more than possible.

Further there is a kind of historical amnesia that may be uniquely American. There is nothing particularly majestic about the NBA of the sixties, seventies, and even eighties. Rampant racism, poor salaries, very little player autonomy, and massive drug use…not to mention porous defenses.

Lindell (and the rest of us) should be able to recognize Kobe’s greatness as part of a longer thread, while at the same time understanding the fundamentally modern components of his game that emanate from and are part and parcel OF hip-hop. Among other things.