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An American Story

The Shaq-Kobe conflict has deep roots in our culture. Can you be a star without undermining community?

February 11, 2001|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — When it erupted last month, it seemed like yet another example of two oversized egos colliding. Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant was telling the media that his game has improved and that he wasn't going to contain himself to soothe the bruised sensibilities of his teammates, especially center Shaquille O'Neal, the reigning most valuable player in the National Basketball Assn. When asked by coach Phil Jackson to turn down his game to help the team, Kobe snapped that he was going to turn it up instead. Meanwhile, O'Neal was snarling. Last season's dominant force on the Lakers championship team, O'Neal was insisting that teammates continue to "feed the big dog"--meaning himself--if the Lakers hoped to repeat as champions. At one point, Jackson said of his two stars, "I don't even want them in the same room together right now."

Essentially, Kobe was saying that showing off his skills was more important than his team winning another championship, while Shaq, certainly no selfless Gandhi, was saying that the team came first so long as it rode him to victory. ("It's all about the team," said Shaq, " 'cause I know marketing. If the team wins, then everybody looks good.")

Posed this way, the Kobe-Shaq battle wasn't just one of egos in the sports world. It was a conflict with deep roots in American culture generally. Whether you side with Kobe and think that a young man has a right, even a duty, to use his talent to the utmost, or whether you side with Shaq and think that his .571% field-goal shooting percentage is reason enough to give him the ball instead of Kobe, with his .462% conversion rate, the two are enacting a classic struggle between the individual, who wants to demonstrate his excellence, and the community, which often demands that an individual subordinate himself for the greater good. That Kobe not only feels emboldened to take on his team's biggest star, his coach and the successes of the past, and hasn't suffered much criticism for it, says a great deal about how contemporary America is reframing that age-old conflict to fit modern mores.

Every society has had to wrestle with the issue of individual rights versus community good, but America, born during the Enlightenment when individual rights were being espoused and forged on the frontier where individualism was a premium, has always been a special case. In virtually every previous society, state power took precedence. The individual served the system, be it civil or religious. But Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke changed that. New theories posited that individuals have rights, not just obligations, and they form compacts with their fellow citizens to protect those rights, even while sacrificing other rights to achieve that end. Once one acknowledges that individual rights form the basis for society, life becomes a negotiation between the individual and his community--an attempt to balance individual freedom with communal needs. America was the experiment that put such theories into practice.

America was not only born into this tension; it quickly institutionalized it in its major political parties. Though it grossly oversimplifies matters, the Republicans of Thomas Jefferson were essentially Kobeites, dedicated to the primacy of the individual. Jeffersonians constantly sought to check the federal government's powers, even when those powers seemed to serve the larger public interest. For their part, the Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were Shaquites, dedicated to the primacy of the nation, though not as a separate entity with power over individuals, but as the aggregation of individuals from whom it derived its legitimacy. In sports terms, Jeffersonians believed that the team was never bigger than its parts, the Federalists that a winning team served the interests of its parts.

Once established, these two forces, in different guises, continued to battle throughout the 19th century right up to the present in everything from the Civil War, in which the South asserted its right to hold slaves against the North's desire to maintain a union, to CBS' "Surivivor," in which participants constantly scheme on how to use community to advance their individual goals. Depending on the political climate, the country would list this way or that--either toward a more individualistic orientation, as in the 1920s and 1980s, or toward a more communalistic one, as in the 1930s and 1960s.

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