In North America, a mark of advanced sports celebrity is being recognised by one name. Not like in, say, Brazil, where thousands of footballers prefer to answer to one name. In the US and Canada, one name is earned, not chosen.
Tiger. Serena. LeBron. Sid. Babe.
He hardly needs the rest, but his full name is Kobe Bean Bryant – the Los Angeles Lakers veteran and fourth-leading scorer in NBA history, who will make a two-day visit to the UAE this week for the Kobe Bryant Health & Fitness Weekend.
Six times in the first 10 years of this century, Bryant had the world’s most-purchased basketball jersey. It was a recognition of individual brilliance as well as team achievement, and the purple-and-gold Lakers jersey with “24” on the back is casual wear in the US, particularly in Los Angeles.
The gravity-defying basketball of his youth established him among the elite; the three early NBA championships (and subsequent fall-out) with Shaquille O’Neal furthered it; and consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010 completed it. If he is not the best player since Michael Jordan, it is only because LeBron James recently passed him.
Where Bryant’s career stands as he makes the long journey from California to the UAE is not clear. His Lakers seem caught in an uneasy middle ground: too weak to be champions; too good to aspire to a history-changing top-draft choice.
Bryant is central to the conundrum. His left Achilles tendon snapped on April 12, during his 1,459th game of his career, and it often has been remarked that basketballers generally do not come back from a torn Achilles. Bryant, typically, plans to be different, but reports this week suggest he has yet to put all his weight on his repaired tendon, while running. It seems unlikely he will play in a pre-season game, or be ready for the NBA opener on October 29.
He will not engage in basketball activities while here, beyond the gentlest sort, during a clinic at the Gems Academy in Abu Dhabi, on Thursday, and will coach, not play, in a celebrity game at the American University of Dubai, on Friday night.
The timing of his visit is a bit curious. The celebrity game comes one day before the Lakers open their training camp with a media day in LA. If Bryant makes an appearance there, it will be only after a 20-hour journey from Dubai. Those who have made that trip, across 11 time zones, can attest to the likelihood of significant jet lag, and such a long journey might not be optimal for a healing tendon.
His arrangements with Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, sponsors of the visit, and Maven Marketing & Events, the organisers, are not known, but his motives seem likely to be beyond the financial. He will be paid US$30.5 million (Dh112m) by the Lakers during the coming season, the top salary in the NBA, and his endorsement income is estimated at $30m by Forbes magazine, which ranks him No 6 in earnings among athletes, just behind Roger Federer.
So much attention is paid to Bryant’s urge for perfection in the arena that his history of charitable activities is obscured.
In 2008, the Orange County Register reported that Bryant had over the years met with more than 100 desperately ill children as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Many of the kids died within weeks, but not before meeting their favourite sportsman.
“It’s tough every time, but they don’t want to see you down,” Bryant told the newspaper. “They don’t want to be treated like patients. They just want to be kids. They just want to feel normal. They just want to have fun.”
His UAE visit is scheduled in association with the Dubai Diabetes Association, and he will carry the message that keeping fit and active leads to a higher quality of life. The UAE has one of the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes on the planet.
Bryant is a citizen of the world, which places him among a minority in American sports. He was born in Italy, where his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant was playing professional basketball, and this year he has gone on holiday in Italy and taken Nike-sponsored trips to China and the Philippines.
The UAE becomes the latest stamp in his passport and broadens his “brand” in a well-to-do region. But Kobe, being Kobe, even while entertaining in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, his mind no doubt will stray to a sixth NBA title, equalling the number won by Jordan and, perhaps, the 6,671 points he needs to become the league’s greatest scorer.
Not that he needs either achievement to confirm one-name status.