The L.A. hoops scene doesn't really need protection against outsiders, and even if it did Brandon Jennings would be an odd choice for chief border sentry. The Milwaukee Bucks guard was born and raised in Compton, but before his junior year of high school he abandoned the legendary Dominguez High basketball program (which gave the world Dennis Johnson, Cedric Ceballos, Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler) to play for Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. When it came time to select a college program, he blew off USC to sign with Arizona. (He'd eventually skip college entirely to play in Italy.) Along the way he publicly distanced himself from the L.A. style of point-guard play, telling SLAM Magazine, "I don't respect West Coast point guards; they're too Hollywood for me. I'm more of an East Coast point guard. Someone like Jrue Holiday, he's real smooth, goes to work in the first three quarters, but he's not a killer yet. Me, I'm a killer." (LOL, settle down there, bro.)
So it was a bit surprising this week to see Jennings rekindle his hometown pride and begin a campaign of excommunication. His first target? Kobe Bryant. In response to a question about Kobe joining the local Drew League for a possible game against D.C.'s Goodman League, Jennings told Chris Palmer of ESPN, "He wasn't born and raised in L.A. You gotta be from L.A. for Drew. Show me a birth certificate." Thus Jennings became the self-nominated arbiter of Angeleno bona fides.
To be honest, I'm not sure whether he was joking. I sort of assume that he was, in part because few NBA players are daft enough to pick feuds with Kobe Bryant and in part because the comment is too stupid to be taken at face value. Kobe has played basketball in Los Angeles for 15 years, which is roughly how long Jennings was alive before he left Compton. In the eyes of the world, Kobe is the avatar of L.A. basketball and will be for generations to come. If he wants to rep Drew, he'll rep Drew. The L.A. County Records Office will be happy to forge a birth certificate on his behalf.
Jennings' comment, however, gestures toward some interesting questions about Kobe's relationship to this city. In his 15 years here, has he become an Angeleno? He means everything to Los Angeles, but what does Los Angeles mean to him? In his worldview, is the city more than just a setting for his professional career, picked for its visibility and prestige? And if that's what it was initially (sorry, Charlotte), has it since become something more?
That Kobe isn't an L.A. native couldn't be less important. Our civic culture is famous for its indifference to origins. It's not true that you never meet people who grew up here - you actually meet plenty of them, all the time - but it's completely true that no one in L.A. (save Brandon Jennings, I guess) cares where you're from. Our hoops pantheon is wall-to-wall with immigrants: Magic Johnson arrived from Michigan, Lew Alcindor from New York, Jerry West from West Virginia. Conversely, ask Baron Davis whether having grown up in L.A. made him any more popular with Clippers fans.
But not every superstar embraces the city to the same extent. Magic did so with a kind of unbounded glee. Upon arriving in 1979, he quickly sank down roots that spent the next decade and more drinking from different parts of L.A. life. He opened businesses, tried his hand at show business (O HAI, Magic Hour), took an ownership stake in the Lakers and gradually became a local éminence grise. His image remains prominent in the landscape. Whether he's appearing at City Council meetings to weigh in on the Farmers Field proposal or serving as pitchman for nearby casinos, there are days when you can't go 20 minutes without seeing that signature Magic grin.
Comparatively, Kobe holds us at arm's length. Except when he's on the basketball court, he shuns the spotlight. In a town infested with paparazzi, he's rarely spotted out and about. He doesn't have a celebrity wife. The occasional Modern Family cameo notwithstanding, he doesn't exploit his fame for entry into the entertainment-industrial complex. Naturally private by disposition, his 2003 rape charge and the 2007 mini-controversy over his recorded parking-lot stemwinder made him even more so. His charity efforts, while substantial, are low-key by the standards of celeb philanthropy.
If you've ever seen Kobe on one of his rare forays into public space, you can sympathize with his guardedness. The man draws people, total strangers, to him gravitationally. It can be hard for him to walk from one point to another. Unless you live for that sort of thing - which Magic does, bless his heart - you might reasonably fear that opening yourself up to it more than necessary risks pure misery. And you'd understand how someone like Kobe could feel ambivalently about the place.
When people wonder what Kobe will do in his retirement, they're mostly thinking about what his job will be. I'm wondering about where he'll do it. I could easily see him staying here, of course. This is home to his kids and his father, who's head coach of the Sparks. But far more than would ever be the case with Magic, I can also see Kobe leaving (especially for abroad). Michael Jordan, to use the obvious reference point, had no trouble leaving Chicago.
Parsing the psychology of the hyper-famous is tough. My own guess is that Los Angeles is home to him in a significant way, even if he hasn't fully and maybe will never come to terms with his Angelosity. I imagine him remaining here but receding even further from public view. He'll be a milder version of local celeb recluses like Morrissey and Nancy Reagan. As they know and as Kobe might one day appreciate, though L.A. is where people go to become famous, it's also where famous people can go to disappear.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.