2001 was the year San Antonio Spurs fans convinced themselves Derek Anderson would have made a difference. He was coming off a career season with the Los Angeles Clippers, shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc and averaging nearly 16 points per game for the league-leading Spurs.
Had he not separated his shoulder in the semifinals, surely the Spurs' best perimeter defender would have made it a different series. Still reeling from Phil Jackson's flippant assertion that San Antonio's first title deserved an asterisk (on account of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season), Spurs fans wanted so badly to start talking asterisks of their own.
Two things made that impossible.
First, even though Derek Anderson was pretty good that season, he still hadn't been on anyone's radar long enough for most to take his absence seriously. And besides, you can't make these kinds of excuses in the playoffs. Injuries happen.
Second, Kobe Bryant.
No one could have slowed him down, and certainly not Anderson. This was Kobe's coming-out party, the season he raised his average six points to a then-career-high 28.5 per game. He dropped 45 points in a 14-point Game 1 victory. He shrugged at Tim Duncan's career playoff-high 40 points in Game 2, scoring 28 of his own and nailing a three-point, win-sealing dagger with 1:10 remaining.
But it was his near-triple-double (and 36 points) in an emasculating 39-point Game 3 demolition project that got Spurs fans turning TVs off. I don't think I watched Game 4.
And I don't think I had anything nice to say about Kobe Bryant for a long time after that.
It wasn't that I didn't respect him; on the contrary, I respected him too much to pretend there was any love there. I knew he was the most talented, deadly player on the planet—the single greatest threat to Tim Duncan building a legacy worth remembering. Until 2003, it seemed entirely possible Los Angeles would prevent Duncan's Spurs from ever getting a second ring.
The fact that Bryant has been so unlovable is a testament to his greatness. People don't love anything that takes titles away from their favorite teams. And Bryant has taken a lot of titles away from people's favorite teams.
Leaving the Past Behind
When the Lakers don't win a title, Angelinos still have Los Angeles. When the Spurs don't win, we roast in it all hot summer long—with no Dodgers to take some of the edge off.
Don't get me wrong; San Antonio has charm, but in a quaint, less distracting way. When you lose, distraction is exactly what you want—and L.A. has plenty of those. Without them, Spurs fans hold on to their grudges all the more, demonizing their NBA nemesis with all the subtlety of, well, a Spurs fan.
The root of that disdain is envy. Tim Duncan never had what Shaq had. He never had a Jordan-like scorer taking games over in the fourth. Tony Parker is great and all, but no. Teams like San Antonio don't get guys like Duncan and Kobe, not at the same damn time.
The fact that last season was a disaster for Los Angeles made it easier to get over the past. Kobe isn't as scary as he once was—or anyway, the Lakers aren't. In L.A.'s vulnerability, the rest of us have had a chance to let down our defenses, to see Bryant more objectively—for what he is and what he isn't.
He is outspoken, now so more than ever. The "old man with nothing to lose" routine doesn't just fit Bryant well—it fills an unacceptable void in the NBA's public discourse: someone without a filter. I get the value of decorum and political correctness and PG television...but sometimes it's nice to just hear the truth.
Like when Bryant provided his evaluation of last season's interim coach, per ESPNLA's Arash Markazi:
Kobe on Bickerstaff: "He's good. He's getting the f--- out of the way."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) November 12, 2012
That was from early in the 2012-13 campaign, when—in the wake of Mike Brown's dismissal—Los Angeles' stresses and uncertainties were at an all-time high. The really endearing thing, though, is that Kobe is about more than entertainment value alone. His thinly veiled Facebook response to Smush Parker was nothing short of legendary, but more importantly, it genuinely changed how I felt about the situation.
As someone who's long admired Gregg Popovich's willingness to get on his players' bad side, Bryant's argument that being an effective leader sometimes "means being perceived as the villain" resonated with me. It's not that Bryant is or isn't a nice guy; it's that it doesn't matter what he is.
When you're the Lakers' de facto coach, being likable is the one luxury Bryant can't afford. Even when Phil Jackson was around, Bryant has been the closest thing to a Type A personality associated with this franchise—especially after Shaq left.
Love or hate that personality, it's an unambiguous one. There's something to like about that.
Kobe at His Low, Kobe at His Best
Like the rest of the world, I was shocked when Kobe tore his Achilles—not shocked like, "Oh wow, that's surprising"; more like, "This doesn't happen—ever." Not to Kobe, not to the Lakers. The next couple of free throws usually don't happen either.
Somewhere between that and Bryant's beast-mode rehabilitation process, you'd have to be out of your mind not to appreciate what's been going down before our eyes. Just four months after disaster struck, he's already working out on a specialized weight-bearing treadmill, per Eric Pincus, L.A. Times.
By all accounts, he's on pace to recover far ahead of schedule. Lakers vice president Jim Buss speculated in July that he'd be ready by the preseason, even sooner than Bryant initially had in mind.
Kobe on return: "I'm shooting for November, December latest. That's my goal in my head...Once I'm ready to go, its gonna be on"— ESPNLA 710 Radio (@ESPNLA710) June 19, 2013
And far ahead of initial projections that had him out anywhere from six to nine months. Bryant himself explained in August, per NBA.com's Jonathan Hartzell, that his remarkably successful recovery is due in large part to the novel kind of procedure he received:
The surgical procedure was different […] and because of that the recovery has been different. The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that. Three-and-a-half months I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.
That takes some of the fun out of the notion that Bryant has magically willed himself to superhuman recovery, but there's no telling what kind of Area 51 top-secret technology was used during that surgery. Only the best for Bryant—he has the Lakers to save. Again.
Riding Off Into the Sunset
Hard as it may be for some to feel anything but antipathy for Bryant, it should be even harder by now not to root for him. He knows his Lakers face a long road, and he knows many are already counting them out—even if he doesn't seem to agree.
12th I see..— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 14, 2013
This wasn't the kind of farewell tour Kobe bargained for, and it's not the one he deserves. Even the most embittered of his adversaries don't want to see him go out with a whimper. Even the most jaded of us can't wish that upon him. His determined recovery in Los Angeles' hour of need is the kind of true story we base movies on. The kind of heroism that makes fans out of non-believers.
Like it or not, we're all Kobe Bryant fans this season.