COLUMN: Kobe, Helton and LA’s future

first_imgDespite growing up in L.A., I was never a big Lakers fan. There were plenty of good opportunities for me to jump on the bandwagon, but I just was never that into basketball.In fact, I would go as far as saying I disliked the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, the face of the franchise, always came off as a ball hog and was connected to some less than savory issues off the court.But especially toward the end of his career, I’ve grown to respect him for his impact on the game, the franchise, and the city we’ve both called home for the past 20 years. Without a doubt, he’s been the most influential sports figure in Los Angeles this century.Which is what makes the timing of his retirement and the hiring of Clay Helton as USC’s next permanent head coach so interesting. Throw in the Dodgers’ decision to hire Dave Roberts as their next manager, and you have arguably the three biggest teams in one of the country’s largest media markets all going through huge changes in identity within the same week.The question on the mind of every Trojan fan is if Helton can handle the pressure of leading USC football and bring the Trojans back to a championship caliber that has become the expectation of any program or franchise in the City of Angels. Of course, only time will tell, but the fate of the other big sports names who have established their legacy in Los Angeles could give some valuable clues.As much as Helton would dislike admitting it, he might now be on track to replace Kobe as the biggest name in L.A. sports. You could make the argument for plenty of others, but I think Helton wins the starring role.With no competition from the NFL, USC is Los Angeles football. As the most popular sport in the country, it’s hard to believe there still isn’t a professional team in L.A., the nation’s second biggest media market, but the Trojans fill that void for many sports fans. Objectively speaking, USC is still one of the premier programs across college football because of its tradition of success across numerous generations. And with all due respect to UCLA, the Trojans officially won back the city title this weekend, reminding the Bruins of where their place has been in the history of their rivalry. Because college football players come and go every four years, even Heisman winners like Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush won’t hold legendary status quite like professional counterparts. Though Jim Mora deserves a lot of credit for building up UCLA to a much more competitive position, he would have to start winning multiple national championships, or move across town, before he becomes a next level big name.On the basketball court, we have another similar rivalry, where the Lakers are clearly the alpha historically, despite a recent surge by the up-and-coming Clippers. Even though he might not have always been the face of the franchise while Shaquille O’Neal was winning MVP awards for the team, Kobe was basically just as prominent during the Lakers first run of championships, and there was no doubt who was leading the team during their second championship run after Shaq had left L.A. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul of the Clippers certainly bring back memories of the Shaq & Kobe duo, but they also need multiple rings before becoming L.A. legends.Surprisingly, a championship has eluded the Dodgers for the past 27 years. Every Dodgers fan can recall the replay of Kirk Gibson rounding the bases after his walk-off home run that catapulted the team to the 1988 World Series title, but my generation of baseball fans still haven’t seen one with our own eyes, even as the organization has surged to the top of the NL West — and the MLB payroll totem pole. Clayton Kershaw certainly has the talent and name recognition to become a superstar, but he too needs to trade in a Cy Young award plaque for a World Series ring before he can officially get to that level. If I had to pick the most important figure in the franchise recently, I might even go with            play-by-play man Vin Scully, who, like Kobe, is also set to retire soon.The L.A. franchise you might have forgotten that has won a title in recent memory is the L.A. Kings. In fact, the Kings have two Stanley Cup wins in the past four seasons, but hockey is still too obscure, or just too cold, for most sunny Southern California natives. Anze Kopitar might be the city’s best and most accomplished athlete, but you might not even be able to pronounce his first name (AHN-zay), let alone recognize him.Of course, the same standard will apply to Helton. For him to achieve legendary status, to warrant a           year-long victory lap after announcing his retirement, to prompt, “Where do they go from here?” or “Who will be the next?” questions, Helton has to win, and not just the Victory Bell or even the Pac-12 South championship. The comparison between Helton and Kobe isn’t a great one, as no one will ever buy a Clay Helton jersey, but there is one comparison that will be very easy to make if Helton does win.Behind Kobe, the next biggest name Los Angeles has seen in sports within the last two decades has to be Pete Carroll. The Lakers had two championship runs with Kobe, and other than the Kings, the only team with that kind of dominance over a period of time was the Trojan football program Carroll led. In fact, it’s Carroll’s departure that signaled the end of USC’s dominance for many fans, and the question has always been how to get the team back to that level without him.Helton is about as far away from both Kobe and even Carroll as they come. Kobe will go down as one of the hardest, toughest competitors of the era. It’s fitting that Kobe waited until now, when injury and age have robbed him of almost all value on the court, to give up instead of going out on top with a couple years to give. Though he has progressed into a better leadership role, Kobe was the kind of guy who demanded the ball, demanded the spotlight and wanted nothing more than to be the one to beat you.Carroll was comparable to Kobe from the sideline. He loved the rah-rah, never shying away from the media or showing his enthusiasm. Though a much more positive personality, he preached competition in all phases of preparation, maintaining that only if players were fighting for spots would they develop into NFL talent, and the Trojans almost always brought their best to big games — with one noteworthy exception.Helton fits in much better with someone like Phil Jackson. Though maybe not a strategic mastermind or offensive innovator like Jackson, Helton definitely embodies the Zen Master mindset. He wants to be behind the scenes, put his players in the best position and just be a respectable guy that everyone wants to play for. Jackson’s mindset was the perfect complement to Kobe’s killer mentality, and led the franchise to its five titles the past 16 years.Helton’s low-key style is also reminiscent of Daryl Sutter, who led the Kings to their two championships. Sutter’s personality is almost the polar opposite to the flashy and glitzy L.A. media, and it was the blue-collar mentality of the Kings that made them so unstoppable during their two Cup runs.The less than flattering comparison is that I could also see Helton ending up like Don Mattingly, the recently fired Dodgers manager. He was another low-key personality, and while he put the Dodgers in a great position over the past couple seasons, they never found the spark to get it done in the playoffs, which ultimately led to his firing. I can see a world where Helton keeps the Trojans good but not great, constantly competing for the conference and national championship, but never really breaking through. It seemed like a rushed hire by Haden, who might have wanted to go with the safest option after all of the off-field issues with Steve Sarkisian without fully exploring the alternatives.But Helton has what it takes to be the next legendary L.A. coach. He won’t be on billboards. He won’t be a household name for sports fans and non-sports fans alike. His first name won’t be sufficient to recognize him in conversation.But he probably likes it that way, and so should ’SC fans. It’s just what it takes to be a championship-caliber coach in LA, and it’s just what USC needs. He doesn’t have to be a star; he just has to manage them.last_img

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