Kobe Bryant was once the league's alternative programming to the hip-hop player when he arrived as a pop star the Volvo crowd could embrace.
He had Eminem in his music file, but projected Osmond. And while other players had strip-club punch cards, Kobe soon had a wife waiting for him at his Pacific Palisades mansion.
He entered the league with an 1100 on his SAT and not one tattoo on his skin. And while other players talked in rap-speak, Bryant could speak fluent Italian. If Allen Iverson appealed to the sneaker-buying urban youth on the street, Bryant played to the ticket-buying soccer dads in the O.C.
He was the great suburban hope as the son of a former NBA journeyman who grew up in the upper-class outskirts of Philadelphia. He spent part of his childhood in Italy and preferred Michael Jordan game tapes over PlayStation videos.
Wasn't he just like Mike? Bryant had the commercial smile and GQ style to go with his Cirque du Soleil court skills and championship rings. And, as it turns out, Bryant also channeled Mike as a scoundrel behind the cardboard family image and a ruthless teammate inside the locker room.
The difference is, Bryant was exposed and Jordan was not. While Bryant's Christmas Day bash with Shaq invited a mass inventory to detail his plunge from league savior to pariah, while he was cast as Kobe-nezer to Shaq-a-Claus, it was also a moment of reflection.
Where did Bryant go wrong in his imitation of M.J.? It began somewhere in suburbia when Bryant was the boy in the bubble, with his needs indulged by a doting family, with his future coated in talent, with the ball always in his hands.
Bryant got what he wanted from the beginning: a draft-day trade to the Lakers in 1996. The entitlement never ended.
He then bounded onto the NBA scene as a product of the cultured good life, as a player celebrated for his maturity, cerebral capacity and poise. It was all a ruse. In truth, his sheltered existence left him arrested in development and devoid of street savvy.
Unschooled in reality, too aloof to pick up teammate tips, Bryant never learned the NBA code: Choose pole dancers over hotel clerks; choose teammates who make you better; choose discretion over snitching.
In the span of two years, Bryant has violated all of the above. Instead of abiding by the "keep it real" index of NBA players, he outed himself as a phony. The first sign of his fraudulence was triggered when Bryant, a self-professed glowing father and husband, was accused of rape by a townie in Eagle, Colorado.Instead of being humbled by the scandal, Bryant responded with an odd case of unabashed arrogance mixed with rampant insecurity. As if to boost his street cred, Bryant got his first tattoo, which, even now, seems like a Cracker Jack press-on when applied to his previously virgin bicep.
This engraved rite of passage didn't make Bryant one of the fellas, though. Without an ounce of self-awareness, without showing a sign of conscience, he then parlayed his free-agent capital into a cudgel to run coach Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal out of Laker Land after three titles and a short-lived dynasty.
Even so, many still gave Bryant a pass on hypocrisy until he was publicly exposed as a rat fink this year. All those seasons of ball hugging, and Bryant chose to dish dirt on his teammates.
He whispered Shaq's name into the ears of the police when cornered in Colorado.