On #24's Retirement
All my favorite Kobe Bryant memories are hilarious.
Like the time he went 6-for-24 in a Finals Game 7. Or the time he did that ridiculous celebration after making a game-winner against Phoenix. Or the time he released a rap single with Tyra Banks. That one MIGHT be my favorite.
Y’all get the point.
I’ve loved watching Kobe Bryant fail. Or, at least flounder a little bit. I cannot tell you the genesis of my Kobe hate. As a tithe-paying member of the Church of Michael Jordan, my hope has always been that he never be better than Mike. Christmas 1999, my dad and stepmom got me NBA Courtside for Nintendo 64 with the cover athlete being none other than a 19-year-old Kobe Bean Bryant. Granted, I’d never really seen the guy play, but my 7-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend the hype. His afro looked stupid. He didn’t even start. He played for the Lakers. His afro looked really really stupid. On this side of the country, I watched Grant Hill and Vince Carter and Allen Iverson get buckets and, from my perspective, Kobe couldn’t have been any better than them. What had this dude done to deserve a video game cover?
Anyways, for the folks who might remember NBA Courtside, Mike wasn’t on the game for whatever reason, but they replaced him on the Bulls’ roster with a guy creatively named “Roster Player #98.” And I would use #98 to give Kobe so much work. Man, I loved giving Kobe 50 with not-Michael Jordan. Fun times.
So when Mike retired and the Lakers got Phil and basically became Voltron, I was a little bit perturbed. Especially because it became harder to argue that Kobe wasn’t good. He still couldn’t shoot, but that was literally it. He could get to the bucket at will, he dunked on everybody, and to make things so much easier for him, he played with a center that couldn’t not be double-teamed. Jesus Christ.
So, in order to continue validating my hate, my next argument was how good could Kobe REALLY be if he was the second-best player on his team? (Related: I was 10 and still highly irrational.) Once Mitch broke up the band and gave the reins to Kobe, I so enjoyed watching them suck. But even them sucking had Kobe dragging Smush Parker and Chris Mihm to 45 wins and a near-upset of the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Suns. Like, that team was really really bad. Even at the height of my hate, I was willing to concede he deserved the MVP that season. I was a hater, but I wasn’t blind.
Even though Kobe begged for the chance to have his own team and then tried to pout his way out after it didn’t exactly pan out the way I’m sure he envisioned, it ultimately worked. He got Pau. He won 2 more titles and could’ve won a third. He’s always been a competitor that has held even his bosses to his own ridiculously high standards. Now I look back on those mid-2000 Kobe seasons with absolute fondness. He was the best player on Earth with a supporting cast that largely belonged in the D-League, so watching him score all those points was so enjoyable, even if I didn’t want to admit it then. I don’t know if I’ll ever see another guy score 81 again, but that Raptors game will always be on YouTube. That time he scored 62 IN THREE QUARTERS will always be on YouTube. You don’t have to be the best teammate when you’re that damn good. You can make everyone else bend to your will. And that’s what he did.
Earlier on Facebook, I wrote that I’ve never been a fan of Kobe Bryant. That’s a lie. I’ve only hated him this much because I’ve always admired him. Sports fans always need someone to hate, and he was that guy for me. I always wanted him to fail because I knew those failures would come few-and-far-between. And watching those failures become more frequent has actually hurt my heart. I’m now at a place where I can admit that Kobe Bryant is one of the three-most impressive basketball players I’ve had the privilege to watch live, and he’s made my experience as a basketball fan that much greater. To say the League won’t be the same without Kobe in that ridiculously oversized Lakers jersey every other night is a gross understatement.
But, with that said, I’ll always have the 2004 Finals, and Kobe will always have the memories of Tayshaun Prince turning him into a mortal for two weeks. Detroit basketball.