The recent news about Shaquille O'Neal, the self-proclaimed, “Eighth Wonder of the World”, makes me marvel. I suppose the giant does not know what to do with himself in the off-season. He was certainly absent on the tour when the Dreamy Redeem Team went to one of the genuine great wonders. Stalking a young woman? Free-styling about a former teammate? While Kobe Bryant was in Beijing changing his image, making new friends and fans, and earning a gold medal, O’Neal was busy getting into trouble -- or, letting past trouble find him.
Participation in sports helps keeps kids off the streets. In some cases, evidently, being involved in athletics also serves adults. Kobe’s passion for basketball has allowed him to develop as a human being, a distinguished athlete who we have witnessed transform from an immature phenom, to a controversial selfish player and questionably disloyal husband, to one of this year’s most fascinating and respected ballers. Shaq, on the other side of the world, has crumbled into an ancient mound of mouthy morsels, an artifact that undoubtedly takes up space and is past its prime.
Forget the Jordan comparisons, as Kobe so bluntly put during an interview with Stephen A. Smith during the NBA Playoffs (see video). Bryant is his own being now. He does everything he can to smile, stay healthy, and improve. Kobe has always been focused on basketball. Shaq desired other elements related to stardom, and for that reason, did not improve to the point where he truly can be called the amazing nickname he once gave himself. Could it be that Kobe has assumed a Darth Vaderish role? From good and young at heart, to evil, and back to good for the rest of his career?
Whatever the case, people will remember the images of Kobe in the Olympics, playing hard, cheering on fellow Americans, and complimenting his teammates and coaching staff. These are scenes and behaviors that serve youth well.
Stories of helicopter parents, adults who preach winning to 9-year-olds, leagues that ban spectators, and an emphasis on interscholastic games over school exams are more and more prevalent. Too many adults want their kids to be the next Kobe… or Tiger, Nastia, Nadal, or Phelps.
These Games demonstrated the two-way street of athletic development. Stars shining for other stars. Coaches demanding and supporting their athletes. Athletes striving for perfection with marked adulation for their trainers. Community building was at its finest. World-class athletes were sent back in time, to a place where they were young and dreamy and wide-eyed and excited to be next. There was, as there will always be, an urgency to win and increase medal count, but the examples of teamwork, dedication, support, and sportsmanship were both magnificent and educational -- even for the best athletes in the game.