Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players ever and bar none the easiest to root against, played his final NBA game this week, a come-from-behind win over Memphis that served as an exciting end to a 20-year career distinguished by five NBA titles, an MVP award, 18 All-Star games, and a rape trial settled out of court. The 38-year-old star turned in a vintage performance emblematic of his career as a whole: he took 50 shots to score 60 points, cementing his lifelong reputation as a ball hog, shameless chucker and awful teammate.
Admittedly, I am not a huge sports fan. I don’t really have favorite teams. I root for Drama. I root for whoever’s behind to hit a buzzerbeater to send it into overtime and force a seventh game. Since that kind of drama is not readily available in the regular season, no matter what sport you like, I don’t really watch much sports until the later rounds of the playoffs — but I pretty much always watch the later rounds of the playoffs.
But Kobe Bryant spent the majority of his career reaching the later rounds of the playoffs, so I have watched a lot of Kobe Bryant, and though he should obviously have retiredthis three seasons ago, after he had sustained his first Achilles injury — the kind no one comes back from — but before he signed a three-year extension with the Lakers for max salary, I will be genuinely sorry to see him go.
Because as great as he was, and as exciting as he was to watch, Kobe Bryant made it so easy to hate him. To a playoffs-only, primary color sports fan like me, Kobe was a reliable shade of yellow. He was great, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame for his jump shot alone, but he was so, so easy to hate.
He came straight out of high school, and that was cool. He had a funky tipped-back afro, and that was cool. He was fun to watch and he had huge energy attacking the rim, like his idol Michael Jordan, and the was cool. Also like Michael Jordan, he doubled the length of his prime by adding a devastating midrange jump shot to his game once his explosiveness started to fade. And in a third nod to Jordan, Kobe Bryant was driven by a competitiveness that made him an insufferable teammate, to such a degree that he forced the Lakers to choose between him and the most physically dominant player of all time, the 7’1″, 380-lb. Shaquille O’Neal.
Though he had already done a lot to turn people off, including a flagrant elbow to Mike Bibby’s face in game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against Sacramento — a brutal, obvious foul that not only went uncalled by the referees, they called Bibby for a foul and sent Bryant to the foul line — alienating Shaq is where Kobe really started to lose people, because in addition to being a singular basketball player and a physical freak, Shaq was a beloved pop-culture figure by the time he and Kobe started winning championships. He had done talk shows, he had done movies, he had even done a rap album, and even though none of those things came out very well, Shaq seemed like an affable, down to earth guy whose right leg just happened to be bigger than your girlfriend.
Even though they won three consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Shaq and Kobe’s relationship deteriorated: Kobe resented Shaq’s tendency to treat the offseason as the offseason, seldom touching a basketball and coming back overweight and slow while Kobe spent the summer shooting 16-footers nine hours a day; and Shaq just wanted Kobe to back the fuck up and get off his case.
Kobe may have had a point in calling Shaq lazy, and feeling that Shaq owed all his basketball success solely to his size rather than any particular skill or talent. But the fact remains that Shaq was the one and only irreplaceable piece of the 2000-01-02 Lakers, as Shaq would prove when, after a Finals loss in 2004, Kobe forced the Lakers to trade Shaq to Miami, where he immediately won the title with a less talented supporting cast than he’d had in Los Angeles.
Had Kobe been able to chill out a little, he and Shaq would have won at least two or three more titles together, but he couldn’t accept the idea that Shaq didn’t need to bust his ass the way Kobe did to be in charge on a basketball court, Shaq got tired of hearing about it and left. And the public took Shaq’s side, casting Kobe as the prima donna who pushed out the alpha dog so he could take over — casting himself as the villain.
Not long after Shaq and Kobe, no longer speaking, failed to win the Finals for the first time in four years, Bryant went to Colorado to have shark cartilage injected into his meniscus or whatever. What happened there between Bryant and a 19-year-old hotel clerk is a matter of some dispute. Bryant was charged with rape, and even if his accuser’s horrifying story is not true, Bryant’s own version of events — given as a deposition in his rape trial — is super, super icky.
Bryant’s version (paraphrased):
In town for a surgical procedure on his knee, Bryant arrived at this high-desert luxury hotel, and was shown to his room by the young clerk. He asked for a tour of the place, and she obliged, concluding the tour in his suite. Five minutes later, he is standing behind her over the back of a chair. He announces that he is going to finish in her face, and she replies that she is not down with that. He insists, “it’s kind of my thing.” Unmoved by this argument, she continues to withhold her consent to the facial. He pushes her off of him and tells her to leave, and she does. And if she was bleeding, it’s because she’s a slut who had sex with three guys in three days.
This is not a super sympathetic character is what I’m saying.
Sports are always more fun when there’s a villain, and Kobe and the Lakers were a match made in heaven. The Lakers’ supernatural tendency to somehow always magically acquire huge talents like O’Neal or Bryant or Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard irrespective of salary cap or free agency rules, so they’re always easy to root against, like the Yankees. But every evil organization needs a Blofeld, and Kobe Bryant fit that bill to a T, a sneering, undeniably talented and frustratingly consistent scorer who made close games more exciting because it seemed inevitable that he would find a way to win, and if he didn’t the victory (or more accurately, his defeat) was all the sweeter. Because even though I don’t have favorite teams and I root for Drama, I do actually seem to always find myself pulling for Whoever’s Playing the Lakers.
So even though he seems to be an awful person to work with, to play with, or to tour a high-desert luxury hotel with, I am going to miss Kobe Bryant, because hating him made the late rounds of the playoffs a lot more fun these last 20 years. And no other player has played for one team for an entire 20-year career, so you’ve got to admire his loyalty to the Lakers. Except for when he crippled them financially by signing a max contract for three years that prevented them from signing any top young players when he knew full well his body was in full breakdown, leading to the three worst seasons in franchise history, each worse than the last. But at least he got his 60 points!