The Hate of a Lifetime
There are few “firsts” that you experience in this life that you actually forget. You remember your first kiss, your first friend, the first time you had sex and, if you’re like me, the first athlete you ever hated. And I don’t mean dislike or rubbed you the wrong way, I mean a full-on, irrational, fiery hatred that flowed through your body like blood. The kind of hate that inspires wars or at the very least a solid breakup album. The kind of hate that I possessed for Kobe Bean Bryant.
I don’t know the exact moment that I decided I hated Kobe. Sometime during the first dynasty when Kobe’s chip on his shoulder and ball-hogging became too unbearable to watch and essentially drove my favorite player at the time, Shaquille O’Neal, out of Los Angeles. Kobe’s career as a player and an all-time Laker is clearly not in dispute, the guy is easily a top 10 player ever and one of the most successful stars of the league. He’s also an unequivocal asshole that has abused, snitched on and mentally tortured various teammates, he drove Shaq and Dwight Howard out of town, begged to be traded when things started to sour and is just an all-around sociopath. Yes, he once scored 81 points in a game, but it was at the expense of his team in pursuit of building his own mythology like a dickhead.
Here’s where personal bias comes in: despite being a teenager in the early 2000s, I have always considered Jordan my favorite player. And like it always goes with each passing generation, a torch is passed to a new player to be that one that the kids gravitate to as their supreme. As much as everyone loved Allen Iverson, he was a celebrity who never really entered into that next level category of superstar athlete. Kobe, despite riding the coattails of a bigger star, had the ruthlessness of Jordan with the possessiveness and attitude of a 5 year old that finds a shiny object it likes and won’t let anyone else touch — and he was the golden boy for a legion of willfully blind followers who couldn’t wait to explain to you just how much better than Jordan he was.
My disdain for Kobe Bryant didn’t need to be fueled by my own nostalgic defensiveness of Jordan’s legacy but it certainly added fuel to the fire. Every opportunity I could get to point out Kobe’s shortcomings or celebrate a Lakers’ loss, I salivated over. The implosion during the Malone-Payton superteam, the ’04 finals, the ’08 finals, “Kobe tell me how my ass taste”, the rape trial (look rape is always a serious issue but to a young teenage Kobe hater, I was always happy to have a reason to act self-righteous in the face of his fans) and of course that awful rap album.
When the Lakers finally won a non-Shaq NBA championship in 2009, I seethed for days, and it was even more annoying seeing him win again in 2010 (despite the fact that he was basically bailed out by Pau Gasol and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest). Happiness for Kobe meant doom for basketball: a celebration of whiny, psychotic self aggrandizement; a control freak who would murder his own mother just to have one more ring than Jordan. The only saving grace during this period of Kobe was watching his fans go through the same thing I went through with Lebron James as the new NBA golden boy.
Then something happened. Even from the New Orleans Hornets series, you could tell there was something off about the 2011 incarnation of the Lakers. They didn’t have the same spark or will power as the previous final teams, yet everyone penciled them in for the finals anyways. In the next series, they played the Mavericks and lost game 1… then game 2… then game 3 and it came to everyone’s attention that this was really happening. The Lakers were about to be swept out of the playoff race, like a wet dream of mine come true. I’ll never forget watching the ship go down in spectacular, explosive fashion. On Phil Jackson’s last game as a head coach, the crowd singing “hey hey hey goodbye” brooms in hand, Jason Terry torched the Lakers with 9/10 shooting from 3 point range, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum got tossed out of the game with techs, and Kobe could do nothing but watch his 3-peat dreams. It was a glorious day for me as a Kobe hater (and by extension Laker hater). This day, this moment would be the peak of my Kobe hatred and the end of an era.
The Lakers and Kobe were never the same after this. Dwight Howard signed on during the offseason and the assumption was that a new superteam would be built to prop up Kobe’s slowly deteriorating career a few years longer. It didn’t happen. Dwight and Kobe together was a nightmare that started hilarious and then quickly grew incredibly depressing. Dwight wasn’t built to be berated and verbally abused by Kobe and Kobe’s body couldn’t make it through a full season of basketball anymore. The dream was dead before it even really took off and my hatred that had still been potent at the beginning of the season turned into mostly indifference by the end.
The next few years was filled with a growing sense of sadness at watching a once great player, no matter how deplorable a teammate, get his ass kicked by time over and over. Dealing with bad coaches, worse teammates and a broken down body, watching Kobe and the Lakers lose every night was comforting but not satisfying like it once was. The league was passing him by and so was my vitriol.
And that’s the moment I realized I needed Kobe Bryant — the game needed him — more than I anticipated. The game needs a villain who’ll keep things interesting. Kobe is one of the last vestiges of a generation of obsessively competitive and maniacal players who’ll step on the backs on anyone to get to the top. He was an enemy that thrived off “boos” way more than “MVP” chants and he was more than willing to provide anyone with ample reason to hate him. Who in the NBA can inspire vitriol the way Kobe could with such little effort? Lebron’s passive aggressiveness? Steph Curry’s goody two-shoes act? James Harden’s face? None of these things inspire more than a passing annoyance. Kobe Bryant was a true heel and I’ve enjoyed hating him as much as I’ve enjoyed any other aspect of this game and seeing him as a shell of himself, rusting on the bench has filled me with a melancholy that I never prepared for. I started to just enjoy Kobe as a person and it made me very uncomfortable.
But then we get to this year: 2016. The year Kobe Bryant finally announced his retirement and reminded me just how much fun it used to be to hate him. There is nothing more self-serving and perfectly Kobe than this nonsense charade of a victory lap called Kobe’s retirement tour. Watching Kobe Bryant go from city to city pretending to have had fond memories with anyone is laughable and seeing people pretend for the cameras to not completely hate his guts (or at the very least call him an asshole) is so rich it should be banned by the FDA. Kobe spent years maniacally obsessed with destroying everyone he ever played against (and sometimes with) and now I have to turn my TV to a Lakers vs Bulls game and indulge Kobe and Pau bear hugging like they’re about to graduate high school. The only saving grace is that I still get to watch Kobe take way too many ill-advised shots in another losing effort, night after night. Kobe, you magnificent bastard and beautiful asshole, I will miss you so much you piece of shit.