When, for instance, I inveigh against Brett Favre or A-Rod, I detonate truth bombs of massive strategic scale and ordinance. All the casual observer can do is grab a hardhat and duck — maybe the courageous might glance cautiously out of the corner of their eye in order to catch a glimpse of the rhetorical pyrotechnics. You could say, I guess, that I am the most feared man in sports.
The only trouble occurs when I turn out to be wrong. That happens roughly 40 to 70 percent of the time depending on your reading and occasionally requires a kind of ignoble backtracking.
This was such a week. I have never cared for Kobe Bryant. The charges are many: I’ve always hated his constant scowling. I was suspicious of his role in breaking up the Lakers championship triumvirate of himself, O’Neil and Phil Jackson. After winning three titles in four years, it all seemed terribly hubristic. I didn’t like scoring 80 points in a regular season game. What, precisely, did that prove? I didn’t like the abuse of teammates in a public forum. I thought they folded in the last year‘s finals against the Celtics. I felt he was very much incapable of winning a championship without the help of a legendary player along the lines of Shaquille O’Neil at his side.
Yes, I have always pegged Kobe for a numbers hanger and megalomaniac.
Turns out that he is a megalomaniac and a prodigious winner. Many great athletes have a strain of pathological vanity — but not until this championship run has it ever been clear that Kobe’s less attractive attributes had any direct relationship to winning. Now this link has been indisputably established and I have been demonstrated to be that much dumber. Everything is as it should be and nature continues apace.
But what of the Phil Mickelson Problem?
There was a period, as recent as the last eight or ten years, when more than a whiff of “Great White Hope”-style sentiment emanated from the huge and boisterous galleries which routinely mobbed Mickelson. In many corners of the golf establishment, a near desperate hope emerged that Mickelson could somehow seriously challenge Tiger Woods’ preeminence. In too many instances, this was tinged with an unpleasant subtext, suggesting that Mickelson and not Woods best represented golf’s true constituencies and traditions.
But Bush is gone now and Mickelson somehow seems different too. There is no longer any serious comparison between the two players. As Woods raced to an astonishing fourteen career majors by age 33, his legend grew from titanic to world historic. His professional genius and impeccable public demeanor became harbingers of the multi-cultural wave about to sweep the country.
Mickelson, in the meantime, evolved into a sort of amusing and feckless foil. And that is something he is really good at! He is really feckless and really funny. Poor decision making in big spots has become a kind of personal trademark. Mickelson’s penchant for high pressure melt downs reached a cringe-worthy apotheosis at the 2006 US Open, when an incomprehensible double bogey on the final hole cost him a sure victory. For whatever reason, he wears this sort of screw up extremely well.
"I still am in shock that I did that. I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot,” Mickelson mused candidly at the press conference following the Winged Foot catastrophe. The quote was strangely charming — it struck an appealing balance between understandable disappointment and genuine wonderment at his lack of mental acuity. He has in subsequent circumstances taken to shortening his explanations to “I am dumb." Soon he will begin every press conference by breaking into “If I Only Had A Brain”. During the last day of the Masters, Mickelson’s standard array of comically avoidable mental errors — which cost him the tournament amidst the round of his life on Sunday — struck me as downright endearing. This sympathy was perhaps a pre-cognition of the terrible news of his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, which is something that no man would ever wish on another.
Now, as Mickelson competes at the US Open this weekend, he is, for once, a justified sentimental favorite. I am given to thoughts of how much fundamental diversion he has brought into my life in both of his incarnations, and how happy I am that he will be out there making jaw droppingly insane decisions at all the perfectly ill-timed moments. It seems wrong to root against him with anything like my customary vigor, and I wouldn‘t even be that sad if he won. In 2003, Mickelson winning the US Open would have driven me to a Nietzsche-ian despair.
In a sense, they are oppositional stories. Kobe remade his legacy by winning big, while Mickelson has never seemed more appealing in the role of a dopey, loopy loser.