The last time I saw Kobe Bryant play in person, he was still in high school. Lower Merion High in the Philadelphia suburbs.
And like many fans who watched him back then, I wondered how well he would do against tougher competition when the guy guarding him wasn't some poor glassy-eyed kid being hypnotized by the dribbles and feints and the blur to the basket.
And like many fans, I've seen him scores of times on TV, maybe hundreds, since he jumped to the NBA as an 18-year-old. And when he was paired with Shaquille O'Neal on those championship Los Angeles Lakers teams, I wondered how much of Bryant's productivity was because of the star cast assembled around him.
And like many fans, after Shaq moved on to the Miami Heat and Bryant managed to be even more prolific offensively, winning back-to-back scoring titles even as his team's fortunes sagged, I wondered how much of that was directed toward self-aggrandizement rather than winning.
Bryant could make you wonder because he is a curious athletic phenomenon. Because of his virtuosity in a game in which grace and athleticism can be married as an art form, his appeal transcends borders. A year ago, it was reported that Bryant's jersey was the best-seller in China, eclipsing even that of Yao Ming.
Yet in America, Bryant has frequently been viewed with more ambivalence. The events in a Denver hotel where Bryant conceded adultery but denied sexual assault created a public skepticism about him that lingers to this day. On the court, there were elbow-swinging infractions that drew suspensions. And last offseason's flip-flopping over wanting to be traded or wanting to remain in Los Angeles had many fans applying the word Bryant's detractors most frequently use - selfish.
So, Bryant's Most Valuable Player award, which he will receive tonight before Game 2 of the Lakers' Western Conference semifinal series against the Utah Jazz, signals a real turnaround for him as a basketball player. It typically goes to players who are seen as key ingredients in winning team efforts. For recent-memory templates, think Jordan, Bird and Magic. Further back, it would be Kareem and Wilt and Russell. More recent multiple winners have been Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and Karl Malone.
Even this year, Bryant's selection as MVP will get some argument. New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, playing in far less limelight, helped the Hornets go from four games under .500 last season to 30 games over this season. The postseason doesn't count for MVP consideration, but Paul and the Hornets are rampaging through the West playoffs and have defending champion San Antonio reeling in their second-round series. (New Orleans leads 2-0.)
But Bryant earned this. Despite all the petulant posturing last offseason, he stayed in L.A. Admittedly, the cast around him improved, but he showed he could both score and give up the ball. He played all 82 games despite suffering a ligament injury in a pinkie finger in February. It was recommended that Bryant have surgery, but he's postponing that until after the Summer Olympics.
Bryant's numbers were certainly MVP-caliber. He averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists. But he has scored more points, even had more rebounds and assists, in previous seasons.
So what made this year different and what earned him the MVP had less to do with what Bryant accomplished and more to do with what was accomplished because of him - which is the true measure of how valuable any player is.