Hating Kobe Bryant Was Just Another Way of Loving Him

He was a ballhog. Petulant. A bad teammate. And every second of it was riveting.

January 27, 2020 10:50 am
Hating Kobe Bryant was exhausting because he was so brilliant on the court.
Hating Kobe Bryant was exhausting because he was so brilliant on the court.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

As Kobe Bryant’s playing career came to a close in 2016, I wrote about the strangely empty legacy I thought he would leave behind. “No Peers, No Heirs” was the headline that ran the day of his last game. My argument was that Bryant’s relentless individualism in a team sport dated him, and that the sport would be a better place with his retirement. To be honest, it felt good to vent. I was a Kobe Bryant hater, and I was far from alone.

Hating Kobe was a pastime that united a basketball-loving minority all over the country. For every nine fans who adored his mean-mugging, my-way-or-the-highway Mamba mentality, we were the one who saw a ball hog so self-absorbed as to be completely lacking in self-awareness . Where everyone else saw unforgettable clutch performances, 81 points in a game, and ringzzz, we saw poor efficiency and a guy who alienated Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant player of all-time, so many other teammates and many of us.

But hating Kobe was exhausting. There were so many things you couldn’t take away from him. Thirty-three thousand some-odd points, sure. The obscene durability, in spite of a draconian work ethic that did not seem like it could possibly be extending the shelf life of his knees. The inevitability of every clutch moment — the great game-winners, the lucky shots and the 18 he bricked in that Game 7 the Lakers won anyway. And yes, the rings.

Kobe was fun to hate because he had long ago stopped seeming like a real person. He was a legend when he was still playing. He had been transmuted into his accolades, into two retired jersey numbers, into the most convincing brand of the millennium: the Black Mamba.

Hating on Kobe was ultimately just another way to appreciate him. He wouldn’t be Kobe without legions of detractors because he wouldn’t have been Kobe if he didn’t piss anyone off. He was there specifically to drop 40 on your favorite player, there specifically to rip the hearts out of the home crowd. He was there to give the people who hated him plenty more to hate, because he knew we were loving every minute of it. He was the heel because he was so great.

There have been just a handful of signature L.A. moments that have tied the city’s diverse, strange, surreal urban fabric together. OJ Simpson’s car chase is one. The Space Shuttle Endeavor being towed down city streets is another. Kobe’s last game is the one I’ll remember most fondly. The day my ode to hate came out, I went to a bar to pay my final respects. The only thing one could expect was for The Great Kobe to go out firing.

But in a performance for the ages, Kobe got hot late, just like he always did, like the haters always dreaded. He wound up with 60 points and the game winner. Even his swan song was the perfect two-sided coin, leaving plenty for his biggest fans and most resolute haters to devour. He took 50 shots! The game had zero meaning beyond letting Kobe get those shots off! But the Hollywood bar I was at was in a frenzy, and I, a hater, was leading the chants of his name.

A post on Kobe hate has to acknowledge why so many people couldn’t stomach him. The justice department, the media and NBA fans around the world never held him to account for the credible rape allegations brought against him in Colorado. Bryant’s lawyers smeared the accuser and seemingly leaked her name to the press, sports media covered his court-to-court commutes that season as somehow heroic, and fans were all too eager to dismiss the evidence that piled up against him. In the NBA world, especially, it is tacitly acknowledged that You Don’t Bring That Part Up.

This chapter of his history nonetheless will always complicate his legacy, and, as we found out yesterday, featured prominently in his obituary. However, Bryant’s efforts to be an important figure in women’s and youth sports — as a vocal supporter of the WNBA and its stars, as the founder of a “sports academy” that hosted girls’ sports leagues and as a father — showed a man at least trying to atone for the mistakes of his past. And Kobe trying meant Kobe achieving — even the haters had to acknowledge that.

When I got the news, it was from a friend who, like me, had become a Clipper fan after being turned off of the Lakers by, to some extent, Kobe and his millions of acolytes in our hometown. All the texts said was “holy shit, Kobe” and “this can’t be real right?” My guess was that he was making a comeback, signing with the Lakers to make one last run. I logged onto social media, pouring myself a tall cup of Haterade and, undeniably, I was on the cusp of giggling with excitement, because Kobe was back! It still seems more plausible than his death.

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