Kobe Bryant and I have always had a complicated relationship. Now that he's officially retiring at the end of the season, bringing his 20-year professional career to a close, it's time to reflect on his career and my feelings toward it.
As we all know, Kobe spent much of his childhood in Italy while his father played professionally there. He then played his high school ball just outside of Philadelphia before making the jump straight to the league. He was an athletic guard with incredible potential. As a person of Italian descent who has been born and raised in the Philadelphia area, all signs pointed to a fan-player love fest. Here was this immensely talented player who played the same position as me and was basically everything I wished I could be on a basketball court. He plied his trade at a local high school, adding to the rich basketball tradition in my city. It should have been love at first sight, but instead I spent 20 seasons as an unabashed Kobe hater. It’s a shame, really.
The fairy tale of my Kobe fandom went off the rails before his career even got started. Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 draft, Bryant forced a trade, ultimately landing with the Los Angeles Lakers. I have no tolerance for players who refuse to play for the team that drafts them. To me, it comes off as a selfish, ungrateful move. It illustrates a belief that one is bigger than the game, above the workings of the system. It paints a picture of someone who is completely unappreciative of the spot he is in. His refusal to call Charlotte home immediately damaged Kobe’s standing in my eyes, starting us off on a sour note.
It didn’t take long for Kobe to show flashes of the player he would become, the kind of player who is a basketball fan’s dream: athletic, skilled, hard-working, with a nearly unmatched killer instinct.
He won the dunk contest in 1997 and continued to improve with each passing season. He put on amazing aerial displays and became one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen.
Kobe had that coolness about him, and combined with his play on the court he quickly won fans the world over. He even had me thinking that maybe I had been too hard on him, that maybe I should reconsider my stance.
But just as I was softening on my Kobe hatred and considering embracing this basketball genius, the 2001 NBA Finals happened.
That NBA Finals series pitted Kobe’s Lakers against my favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers, and my all-time favorite athlete, Allen Iverson. This was a time when Iverson’s polarizing nature was at its height, and I wanted nothing more than for him, and my Sixers, to win an NBA championship. I wanted him to win it because I felt he deserved it, I wanted him to have it to cement his legacy and I wanted him to be able to give a big F-U to all of his naysayers.
My hatred for Kobe wasn’t reignited simply because he dismissed the Sixers in five games, denying them and Iverson their title. It didn’t help, but the true impetus in the renewal of my disdain for Bryant came from his thoughts on the Finals.
Naturally, Bryant was asked about returning to Philly to play on the game’s biggest stage in front of his hometown fans. Kobe famously said he was going to “cut their hearts out” in reference to the Philadelphia fans. I have no problem with that. He wants to win, he expects to win and I would expect nothing less. What I did have a problem with was his dismissal of the significance of it all. He said something to the effect that playing in the Finals in Philadelphia wasn’t particularly special to him and that he was “an L.A. boy now.” Again, I don’t expect him to saying anything nice about the Sixers or their fans. We were the enemy. But for him to not be able to acknowledge that it would be special to him, to basically dismiss his Philly roots, was a slap in the face.
The championship was the second consecutive one for Kobe and the Lakers and was the beginning of a decade of dominance that saw them win five total championships in seven Finals appearances. Kobe continued to improve, becoming a perennial All-Star and MVP winner.
As Bryant aged, he simply adapted his game. He developed his signature fade-away jumper, taking yet another page out of Michael Jordan's playbook, one of the most unstoppable moves in the game. He kept on scoring, he kept on winning and he kept on entertaining.
When next year’s NBA season tips off, it will be the first one in a long time that won’t begin with an epic conflict roiling in my gut. For the first time in 20 seasons, there won’t be an internal battle going on — a battle between my logical self, my basketball-loving self who wants so badly to be a fan of this incredible basketball player, and my stubborn, emotional self who sees this arrogant, disloyal guy who at times comes off as unappreciative and selfish.
Here we have this all-time great player, a guard who epitomizes everything I wish I could be on a basketball court, who was born in my home city and played his high school basketball here, and who spent time in the country of some of my ancestors and embraced the culture there. I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to like Kobe Bryant. I wanted to love Kobe Bryant. The fact that things happened, that he did things that prevented me from doing that, stoked my hatred further because I feel as though he denied me what could have been an amazing chapter in my sports fandom.
Despite the fact that my Kobe Bryant fandom was never allowed to bloom, I can’t deny what this man accomplished or what he meant to the game of basketball. It was a privilege to watch Kobe Bryant play basketball, and the game will miss him. Although I spent 20 years hating him and actively rooting against him, I can sit here today and appreciate what he was and what he did, and as a fan of basketball I can put my hatred aside and say thank you.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.