Let me start off by saying this.
I grew up hating the Lakers, and even now, I don’t like them much. I hated the Lakers the way any self-respecting American hates the Yankees, the Cowboys, the Red Wings, or any other egregiously successful franchise that dripped with arrogance. We fetishize the underdog in this country, and the Lakers were anything but when I was growing up. I hated the Lakers because of their bandwagon fans running wild in their heyday and making Oracle sound like a proxy for Staples. I hated hearing crowd noise for every Laker highlight during Warriors games. And because I hated the Lakers, I hated Kobe Bryant. I hated the way he chucked the ball with impunity. I hated the smug dominance he had over games. I hated his cockiness and the ease he drew whistles from refs who were clearly on the take. Kobe winning was like Megatron beating Optimus Prime. Every year during the Laker’s threepeat felt like the bad guy was winning and laughing at everyone’s face every fucking time.
The height of this hatred began to crest during those awesome Kings and Lakers battles when I was in high school. That Sacramento Kings team laid the blueprint for a lot of amazing teams that came after it. The Seven Seconds or Less Suns, the Weak Motion Spurs, and the Small Ball Warriors all drew from their concepts. More importantly, they were considered to be the scrappy upstarts that would challenge the establishment. A Rebel Alliance of Bibby, Peja, and Webber going against Emporer Shaq and Darth Kobe. For a moment, you felt that they would channel all of their collective talent to topple the Evil Empire of Basketball.
It took a Montreal Screwjob of a Game 6 to propel those Lakers into the NBA Finals, which only solidified my hatred of everything Purple and Gold. They were anointed because the game was tilted in their favor. Kobe is just a glorified chucker. Shaq is just a freak of nature. Fuck the Lakers. Fuck LA. Buncha bitches down in Socal. Fuck em all. Basketball is stupid anyway. My team sucks and the team I hate most is winning.
It wasn’t until I transferred into UCLA that my opinion of the Lakers began to shift. That year, the Lakers had a truly middling team outside of Kobe. Shaq was gone, Gary Payton was gone, Karl Malone was gone, and there was nobody to fill the talent void they left behind. I remember Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic playing meaningful minutes. I remember Smush Parker running the point. Memories of Kwame Brown and Luke Walton fill in there as well. This was when the Lakers were still making it to the playoffs, only to get bounced by the SSOL Suns in those years. I remember smiling as my friends were screaming at the TV because of another Smush boner on the court. This is the indisputable proof that Kobe was never good enough to carry his team to the promised land by himself. He was never as big of a star as he carried himself as.
Of course, with the Lakers being the Lakers in those years, Pau Gasol got traded for what looked like a half-eaten Filet-o-Fish and Marc Gasol. I can tell you with confidence that everyone felt the Grizzlies got absolutely fleeced on that trade when it went down. At the time, it was just further evidence that the bad guys would always win. The Lakers would always manage to draw some kind of talent to LA to keep their championship machine running. Kobe would win again. Life remained unfair.
But there was no way you could take a good, hard look at Kobe and feel like he was overrated. The more I watched the Lakers in college, the more I began to realize how dominant Kobe actually was, and how rare he was as a player. Keep in mind, I watched the Warriors when Derek Fisher was our franchise player. I knew what a shitty team looked like, and the Lakers without Kobe were undisputably a shitty team. The fact that he dragged a starting five of him, Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and a rookie Andrew Bynum to the playoffs one year is a testament to how good he actually is. Switch in any other superstar into that team, and you’d bet your house on the Lakers playing for a lottery pick. Of course Kobe would start winning rings when Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol came onto the Lakers. He made the fucking playoffs with Smush Parker as his point guard. You know damn well you ain’t gon’ win nothin’ with a dude named Smush.
As the years went by, and I watched more Laker games on TV, my distaste for the Lakers and Kobe began to subside. There’s a certain beauty in his killer instinct, in his ability to break down any defender and find a way to score. Not just once, but drive 10-0 runs by himself. There were countless instances of Kobe putting the team on his back and clawing the Lakers up from huge holes. The way Harden gets superstar calls on every drive to the basket, he probably got that from Kobe. The way Westbrook wants to demolish the rim on every play, that’s from Kobe. The way Curry pulls up a contested jumper off the dribble from 30 feet, vintage Kobe play.
I learned that to hate Kobe would be to hate on talent. You can only have a blind hatred towards Kobe Bryant if you don’t know much about basketball. Yes, he’s a volume shooter who can shoot his team out of games. He’s a selfish player who rarely gives up the ball in lieu of a contested turnaround jumper. He’ll elbow people in the face to prove a point to the NBA. He’s a documented cheater and was once accused of raping someone. To the casual basketball fan who loves the underdog, he’s such an easy fucking target.
But to someone who learned to love basketball for its manic poetry and amazing athleticism, Kobe is someone I don’t have to love, but he’s someone I have to respect. You have to respect his drive, his work ethic, his 81 points against Toronto, his vintage off-the-backboard-alley-oop-to-himself play in the low block, his once unstoppable turnaround, his loyalty to a single franchise. Kobe Bryant will go down as one of the most gifted scorers to ever lace them up. When you’re thinking of an all-time Laker squad, with all those championships, all those legends, and all those wins, it’s not even a debate on who to pencil in at the 2.
Because at the end of the day, no matter how much we fetishize the underdog and the lovable loser, sports exist for the victors. We don’t watch to further a narrative, we watch to see our heroes win. Kobe wasn’t my hero, but he definitely was a winner, and he’s undoubtedly one of the best to ever do it.
Farewell, Kobe Bryant. At the end of it all, it was a pleasure to watch you play.