By Steve Aschburner
May 08, 2009

Is Kobe Bryant a dirty player?

Yes, yes he is.

There, how that's for instant gratification? Lots of columns would require you to plow through 800 to 1,000 words before revealing their conclusion, offering up all sorts of on-one-hands and on-the-other-hands in the meantime, holding the fundamental question at arm's length to ponder and study from several angles, leading to something namby-pamby and utterly unsatisfying.

Not here. I'm coming with the good stuff right up top: Kobe Bryant is a dirty player.

Not definitive enough for you? OK, then let the record show that Kobe Bean Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is the eighth most dirty player in the NBA. Except for occasional periods when he is its 23rd most dirty player, usually during quirks in the regular season schedule during which Bruce Bowen's, Kenyon Martin's, Raja Bell's, Jamaal Magloire's, James Posey's, Matt Barnes', Joel Przybilla's and Andres Nocioni's teams are all facing each other and, on fresh antics alone, they have to be counted two or three times each.

Hmm. Maybe that's too specific, since this is all rather difficult to prove, proof being the second high hurdle after reaching some sort of consensus on the definition of the allegation. No, not the "is" part of the question -- that's been done. Just what constitutes dirty, though, in NBA terms, is open to myriad interpretations.

Is it dirty to bend rules or do you need to actually break them? Does being dirty require that you inflict some sort of physical pain on an opponent or is it enough to hold a guy's jersey or propel yourself backward in a flop more outrageous than any of Eddie Murphy's last three?

If a defender nudges his knee into the thigh of the ball handler with the intent and result of having that man's knee bump into the ball to create a turnover, is that dirty?

C'mon, elbows to the throat, of the sort Bryant splayed back at Ron Artest on Wednesday night in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Lakers-Rockets, are easy: Dirty, with a capital D. What about the small stuff, though, the pokes and gouges and whacks that go largely unseen? Not nearly as traumatic, and definitely not as frequently replayed and reviewed. Yet if you're the poke-ee, the gouge-ee or the whack-ee, those things can be like water torture, with a cumulative effect that leads to some incident much worse and, given the way referees often spot the retaliator but not the instigator, the wrong guy getting stuck with that "dirty" label.

So how much of being dirty requires one also to be sneaky? Is dirty another way of saying "physical in the first degree," in which there is definite intent -- malice aforethought, as it were -- brought to what, in the flow of a basketball game, really is a series of ever-changing, exhausting moments of passion and exertion? Let's put it this way: What's dirtier? Throwing an elbow to get a guy off your back as you both grab at a rebound, or stepping underneath a jump shooter so he lands on your size 15? Jabbing a quick rabbit punch at someone who brushes by while cutting through the lane, or reminding yourself to do it in the second half when the same situation arises?

Funny, but someone who admits to being a dirty player or at least to committing a dirty play somehow doesn't seem as dirty as someone who does it yet claims to be clean. As in Derek Fisher laying out Luis Scola near the end of the third quarter Wednesday. Fisher made no attempt to hide his guilt. No subterfuge, no camouflage, no alibis. He even dabbed openly at the blood oozing from his scalp after that collision-to-make-Al Davis proud, while awaiting his penalty. Part of being dirty is trying to get away with something illicit or untoward, with the idea of staying in a game to eventually do something equally sinister, if needed.

So, was Bryant's elbow on Artest as dirty as Dwight Howard's elbow on Samuel Dalembert in the Orlando-Philadelphia series? The NBA clearly didn't think so because the Lakers star was assessed a flagrant 1 foul (in retrospect, since the game crew didn't even call a foul) while Howard had to sit out a one-game suspension. How do those compare to Rajon Rondo's arm-whip of Kirk Hinrich into the scorer's table in Game 6 of Boston-Chicago, which was classified as a flagrant 1?

Martin's forearm shove that sent Dirk Nowitzki sprawling in the Denver-Dallas opener was about as dirty as dirty gets -- in this case, we're applying Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 definition of obscene ("I know it when I see it."). Maybe, in that vein, we can go by a variation on Forrest Gump: Dirty is as dirty does. Judge players by what they do, when it comes to such chicanery and mini-mayhem. If Bowen or Bell or Nocioni goes an entire game without incident, well, then he isn't dirty, at least for a night. If Boy Scout Brandon Roy puts a knee into someone's solar plexus and a smirk suggests it wasn't an accident, then that's dirty. Easy. Just where on his anatomy, for instance, did Ray Allen recently hit Anderson Varejao?

Repeat offenses make this easy, too. And let's be clear, Bryant is a serial transgressor. He has been accused constantly of little nasties in his physical contact with opponents, as payback or otherwise. He has been caught on video numerous times and even held accountable by the league on more than a few occasions:

-- In April 2000, Bryant received a one-game suspension for retaliating and throwing a punch at New York Knicks guard Chris Childs.

-- Bryant got suspended for two games in March 2002 after throwing a punch at Indiana's Reggie Miller at the end of a Lakers-Pacers game.

-- In December 2005, an elbow to Memphis swingman Mike Miller's throat cost Bryant another two games to league sanction.

-- Within the first six weeks of the 2006-07 season, Bryant was suspended twice (one game each) for flailing his shooting arm into the faces of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and Minnesota's Marko Jaric. Despite his protests to the contrary, the NBA sheriffs saw no natural follow-through in that move, which looked like a more aggressive version of a jump shooter creating contact with his body. Bryant's maneuver seemed designed to punish rather than manufacture free throws.

That last stretch, capped in March 2007 when Bryant was assessed a flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Philadelphia's Kyle Korver in the jaw, led to the greatest confluence of "Is Kobe dirty?" debates in his career. Lakers coach Phil Jackson accused the NBA of conducting a "vendetta" and a "witch hunt" against his scoring star, and Bryant reacted angrily to the conjecture. "It's insulting," he told reporters then. "I don't need to be a dirty player. That's just ridiculous. I'm not a dirty player -- never have been, never will be."

Still, Bryant is a special case as a Hall of Fame-worthy performer, one of the NBA's top two or three talents, dragging around allegations of dirty play. This stuff isn't just measured on a 1-to-10 scale, with squeaky clean at one end and nefarious at the other. Even a graph with players plotted in the various quadrants -- one axis representing clean-dirty, the other axis capturing the more tricky spectrum of soft-tough -- isn't sufficient. There's a third dimension required, allowing for the range between truly great players and those who might only be able to stay employed in the league by deploying a dirty bag of tricks. There's Karl Malone and there's Bill Laimbeer. And undoubtedly, there are guys who never even had Laimbeer's abilities and smarts but held roster spots at least for a while as irritants and punishers.

The NBA isn't the NHL, but to me there is a difference between acting the thug and being Bobby Orr. Arguably hockey's greatest player ever and absolutely full-service, Orr was the ultimate skills guy who also was tough enough to serve as his own enforcer. If Bryant, so supremely gifted, takes it upon himself to deal directly with those trying to contain or undermine his game, that makes him more Mark Messier than Wayne Gretzky -- no Marty McSorley needed. A number of great players have done it themselves, including Malone, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan (when Charles Oakley wasn't volunteering for the duty).

At that point, the only unsavory aspect, even unmanly, is when the star knows he will be getting the benefit of most doubts from the referees and the league. Then it's like Orr wearing a face shield while dishing out retribution. Or Bryant lipping off at Shane Battier or throwing up his arms in that "Who? Me?" gesture when Artest visits.

That's why we can conclude that Bryant is, indeed, a dirty player. But we also can conclude that he is not the dirtiest player in L.A. -- that would be Manny Ramirez now, right?

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