It's not that Kobe Bryant has suddenly become lovable. There are things about him that still grate on the nerves, his inclination to want every call, his whining to officials, the vibe of a certain aloofness that lends itself to the tag of "Ko-Me."
But as the Los Angeles Lakers begin their highly anticipated NBA Finals series with the Boston Celtics, another pairing of pro basketball's marquee monsters, the most valuable player in the sport (sorry LeBron) has gained a large measure of hard-earned respect, at least in these hoops-loving eyes.
To be sure, I was counted among the Kobe detractors. He seemed a horrendous ball hog, a me-first talent who never met a shot he wouldn't shoot. Sure, Bryant could accumulate baskets by the bushel, but he appeared more concerned about his own game, and his own numbers — including his own number of titles compared to titles captured with that big fellow he used to play with, the man known as Shaq.
Oh, Bryant could score. And score some more. But was he genuine enough to be a true leader, one his teammates would follow, and one who would have enough trust in his teammates to have them follow?
Two years back, when Boston beat Los Angeles in six games in the finals, popular opinion said the Celtics were too mentally tough for the Lakers. Now that they meet again, said Bryant, "We'll see how we've matured."
Bryant has matured. His game has certainly matured. It's easy to forget Bryant never had benefit of college, or a Dean Smith. His growth, or early lack thereof, was out there for all to see, in the second-biggest market in the nation. He's past most of that now, and the better for it.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com's stats wizard for pro hoops, wrote recently that starting with the sixth game of the Oklahoma City series, "this is the best he has ever played in the playoffs by any measure you want to use."
Bryant's ability to come up big in the biggest games is the best measure of all. In that close-out win over Phoenix on Saturday night in Arizona, Bryant was downright amazing, scoring 37 points, including nine in the final two minutes. It was the eighth straight time Bryant had scored at least 30 points in a potential close-out game on the road.
And many of Bryant's miraculous makes were downright absurd, well-covered, ridiculously deep, and at the game's most important moments.
Outside of Rajon Rondo's diving backcourt hustle-play steal from Orlando's Jason Williams in that series, the playoffs' signature moment so far may have been Bryant's killer shot from the right wing against Phoenix on Saturday, the one that was followed by Bryant playfully tapping Suns Coach Alvin Gentry after the ball had smoothly passed through the net.
All Gentry could do was smile.
You do a lot more of that watching Bryant these days, or at least I do. At age 31, what has set him apart from say, LeBron James, is that burning determination to win. No way Bryant tosses in a no-show in an important fifth game of a series the way James did against Boston. Bryant isn't as worried about marketing or retail as he is about rings. And he'd love a fifth.
Said Jerry West to Sporting News Radio, "He's playing the best basketball I've ever seen him play, to be honest with you."
One thing that stuck out after the Phoenix game was Bryant's interview with TNT's Craig Sager, in which the flamboyant sideline reporter asked Kobe what his reaction was to teammate Sasha Vujacic's needless flagrant foul on an elbow to Phoenix's Goran Dragic that let the Suns back in the game.
"I was going to kill him," said Bryant.
Asked Sager, what do you say to him now?
"Still gonna kill him," answered Bryant.
Kobe Bryant as killer.
That I can respect.