Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Different Trains, Same Track

Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods should get together for drinks sometime soon. I'd guess they have an awful lot of common ground to fuel the discussion. The alpha dogs of sport share an understanding about the pressures and rewards of greatness that the rest of us can only guess at, and they no doubt relish trading war stories and recollections of triumph and laughing at us mere mortals. However, in the case of Kobe and Tiger, they have something specific to mull over together; a shared issue that goes beyond any of the obvious analogs we might draw. Here's what that issue is not:

It's not that they're both transcendent athletes on the decline. They are, but the reasons for that are vastly different. Kobe is simply wearing down. The human body degenerates over time, and that process is greatly accelerated for a man who has, over the course of his career, put a ridiculous amount of miles on his NBA odometer. Year after year of endless 82-game seasons, deep playoff runs, Team USA stints, and summers in the gym religiously adding tools to his game are finally taking their toll. His body simply cannot do what once it could. It's the end all athletes eventually share.

Willing but not able.

But he's still Kobe. He's not done being dangerous yet.

With Tiger, it's the antithesis of that tale. His regression is a purely mental thing. (As Bubba Watson recently had the guts to opine publicly.) All the swing doctoring and the putting woes are the result of his infidelities, that fateful Thanksgiving night, and the ensuing conflagration of personal crisis and media scrutiny. The inherent ability is still there, but the locked-in, laser focus and confidence we grew so accustomed to in the past are gone, or at least greatly reduced. Once that mental knife is dulled, it takes a hell of a whet stone to resharpen the blade.

Able but not willing.

But he's still Tiger. He's not done being dangerous yet.

It's also not about their pursuits of certain goals which would further their legacies and alter the way we view them historically. Jordan's rings. Nicklaus' Majors. That angle has been played to death. Rehashing it again would be as boring as an uncontested layup, as banal as a tap-in for par. It's there, but if they're putting back a few cold ones together, it's not what they should be discussing.

No, what Tiger and Kobe share most acutely right now has little to do with their intrinsic qualities as athletes. They're not what they once were, but they still pose sizable threats to opponents. "Not in his prime" does not automatically mean "not incredibly good anymore," just "slightly less incredibly good." And it has nothing to do with the implications of their respective statuses as compared to their greatest predecessors. At this moment, it's the perceptions of those who compete against them that are the pressing matter.

In chess, if you know the game, you can ascertain fairly quickly how skilled your opponent is. It's not just about their opening ten or so moves on the board. You watch the eyes, the body language. How deliberate and measured are they? How much time do they take to react? You synthesize everything you learn about the player, and in a short space of time, you know what you're up against. And if you determine that they're much better than you, that they're on another level, a funny thing happens to your own game. You start playing not to win, but (pardon the cliche) not to lose. Or worse, not to get your clock thoroughly cleaned. Moves you would have been confident in under different circumstances suddenly require second and third guesses. You're constantly worried they know something you don't, that everything you do is eliciting a secret grin in the back of their mind. Most of the time, you end up beating yourself, and all they have to do is sit back and wait to declare a checkmate.

That used to be anybody and everybody that had to go up against Tiger and Kobe. Those two used to a Bobby Fisher mental edge. If player X was coming down the back nine on Sunday with a four stroke lead and Tiger was in the pairing behind him, those four strokes seemed like nothing. Inevitably, the roar would go up, and player X would know: Tiger just did something incredible. He's making his move. And more likely than not, the leader would break. He'd sweat bullets and shank drives and push puts and fall apart. Just because Tiger was back there. Just because he existed. Same for Kobe. It didn't matter if the Lakers were down 15 or if the game was close, opposing fans and players and coaches held their breaths and waited. And Kobe hit a few big shots. And the other team's shoulders sagged a little bit. We can't beat this guy. He's got the angry-glare bulldog face going. He's in Mamba mode. The psychological ramifications were incredible to watch. Imagine the ability to demoralize, intimidate, and strike abject terror into the hearts of your foes just because you're YOU. How many victories have Kobe and Tiger racked up over the years, even if they weren't playing particularly well, just because the guys facing them were terrified of getting whupped, and that fear itself got them whupped? That's what's gone. That's what's missing. The skills have nothing to do with it.

You could see it at The Masters these past two years. Augusta National has been Tiger's course since he joined the tour. It's his sanctuary, his home-court advantage, his perfect battleground. And even there, nobody in the field was worried about him. He's still a great and immensely skilled golfer, but you didn't see guys stealing glances at the leader board on his account. If they had deer-in-headlights expressions, it was because it's The Masters and there's no higher-pressure situation in golf than being in the hunt in that tournament on a Sunday. It wasn't one man, wearing red, bearing down on them, inexorably and inevitably poised to snatch a green jacket from their hands at the last minute. It didn't matter that Tiger easily could have done that if a few more puts had dropped here or there; they didn't think or believe he could anymore, and that made all the difference.

Kobe's issues are more recent. Like, last week recent. If any team was a prime candidate to fall victim to the lore of the Black Mamba, it was the Dallas Mavericks. They already had a freighter's worth of playoff baggage, of early exits and phantoms and "soft" reputations. You'd think they'd have taken one look across the floor at Kobe Bean Bryant late in that first game, and quailed in fear. But the Mavs didn't care. They weren't buying it. It was written clearly on their faces. "Go on, let's see it. Close us out if you can." They weren't intimidated one bit. Hell, they weren't even an iota of nervous. And when the game clock hit zero after that game 4 beatdown on Sunday, the rest of the NBA knew it too. The league collectively turned into the trainer in Rocky IV. "SEE?!?!? HE'S NOT A MACHINE! HE'S A MAN!" The fear was simply gone.

Of all the things Kobe and Tiger have in common, that's the most recent and most important development. They used to be titans. Now, in the eyes of their opponents, they're mere mortals. Very, very talented mortals, but fallible and beatable nonetheless.

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