The man in this picture is, quite possibly, the player that I dislike most in the NBA. And I don't mean to undersell my disdain for Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, or Rajon Rondo.
The first NBA action I can recall watching was the end of Game Six of the 1993 NBA Finals. I was a rabid fan by the start of the 1994 campaign.
Ever since those early days of my fandom, I've disliked the Los Angeles Lakers. And not simply because I'm jealous of their success—although I am incredibly envious of the franchise's current roster. This group is reminiscent of that Bulls squad at the end of the original NBA Jam video game.
The reason that I began to dislike the Lakers so many years ago was because there seemed to be a level of arrogance to some of their players, such as Cincinnati's own Nick Van Exel—better known as "Brick-at-nite" to his many detractors—that far outstripped the team's accomplishments. For the record, that impression did not include solid citizen Eddie Jones, the only truly successful member of the Temple Triple, made up of Rick Brunson, Aaron McKie, and Jones.
Regardless, like the rest of the Western Conference, the mid-1990s Lakers team couldn't overcome the dominance of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler of the Houston Rockets. The Lakers never actually squared up with the Rockets in the postseason, but there is a little reason to think they would have succeeded where others failed. And this was delightful as far as I was concerned, because I really liked Olajuwon and was happy for Drexler, especially after hearing all throughout his career how he could never win the Big One while he was in Portland.
Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon, though. It started on draft night in 1996, when 17-year-old phenom Kobe Bryant was drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets.
Bryant, perhaps knowing he was destined for a bigger stage, wanted no part of the Hornets. In a fateful deal, the Lakers gave up Vlade Divac for Bryant's draft rights.
I was not watching draft night coverage, as I didn't watch the NBA draft until the 1999 selection of Elton Brand by the Chicago Bulls. So I don't know how the analysts looked at that pick. Hindsight being 20/20, Cleveland had a chance to grab Bryant, but they took future journeyman Vitaly Potapenko. As a footnote, Steve Nash went two picks later, at No. 15, to Phoenix.
Of course, Bryant wasn't going to become the face of the league (ugh, I hate saying that) overnight. To that end, the Lakers grabbed Shaquille O'Neal to play second fiddle. Wait, what's that? Shaq was the star? Hmm. Let me check...yep, Los Angeles inked the then-Orlando Magic star to a seven-year pact worth $121 million.
Bryant and I first crossed paths in the playoff series against the Rockets. The Rockets, taking advantage of the implosion of the World Champion Chicago Bulls, traded for Scottie Pippen, then signed him to the money everyone outside of Bulls GM Jerry Krause—and, to a lesser extent, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf—thought he deserved to be making.
During that playoff series, Pippen attempted to pull off a crossover on Bryant, who picked him so cleanly that I was in shock. That kind of play never happened to Pippen on the Bulls—or so I thought.
The Lakers went on to win that game—and eventually, the series. A demoralized Rockets squad that included Charles Barkley, as well as Pippen, would have another run-in with Bryant a few years later in a Game Seven situation.
That steal from Pippen was when I knew Bryant wasn't just O'Neal's lackey, and that he truly was special. That's when I knew that the Lakers were going to be an extremely dangerous team—as they turned out to be.
While the Lakers and Spurs took turns slapping the Western Conference around, Bryant and O'Neal—who won three titles together—missed the fourth because of the Detroit Pistons' balanced team attack in 2004. On that Detroit team was Rasheed Wallace, who had been a key participant in a Game Seven meltdown during the 1999-2000 playoffs.
Before this point, though, the Lakers beat my second-favorite team, the Sacramento Kings. Every time it looked like the Kings would finally get it done, the Lakers would hulk up. And then it would be five moves of doom time, and the Kings would be lying on their faces beaten.
As a fan, I found the predictability tiring. O'Neal would run over defenders and leave me wondering, "How can you foul that guy? Anything he does is going to hurt you, not him." All the while, Bryant would calmly just abuse everyone put on him.
As odd as it seems, past-their-primes Karl Malone and Gary Payton played a role in that L.A. loss to Detroit that ended the period of their partnership. At that point, O'Neal and Bryant were growing unhappy with each other. O'Neal was eventually traded to the Miami Heat, where he teamed with Dwyane Wade to win a title.
Bryant's failures tasted sweet to me at the time. After Bryant ran O'Neal out of town, he decided to become Superman. This is when I really began to hate him, because outside of my undying hatred of the Lakers, O'Neal seems like a good guy, and Phil Jackson is...well, Phil Jackson.
Bryant learned eventually that one guy can't win everything—a lesson imparted painfully to a young Michael Jordan by the Bad Boy Pistons of the late 1980s.
This is when Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak went to the well, drawing Pau Gasol out of Memphis, drafting Andrew Bynum—the next potential monster Lakers center—and winning an NBA title in 2009 against an overmatched Magic group.
No matter how well he played, I'm not ready to bow before Bryant. And I don't think I'm part of the tin foil hat brigade, either. I don't think anything is rigged or that games are fixed. I'm just a hoops fan that really doesn't like the Lakers.
I guess I've never really forgiven Bryant for forcing O'Neal to leave. Although I dislike the Lakers, I'm a believer that athletes need great players to measure themselves against. That's why baseball history is dotted with great pennant races and World Series, mostly featuring the Miller Huggins/Joe McCarthy/Casey Stengel Yankees, why football in the beginning of this millennium was fun to watch. And why the NBA was fun with Jordan.
A book I read once claimed the NBA was boring in the 1980s because outside of the Lakers and Celtics, nobody else was going to win. I don't agree with that point of view.
As a Bulls fan, I'm jealous. All we have is Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and a bunch of journeymen. It took the Bulls nearly 30 years of existence to win their first NBA title. Or even make their first NBA Finals.
Next up: L.A. Story, Part 2: The Clippers