It's funny how someone as good as Kobe came to be hated as strongly as he has been. He's kind of that guy who's been hated by default, or by association. It's all relative.
I wasn't old enough or into basketball when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had their rivalry. By the time I knew which way was up and which was down, Magic and Larry were BFF's and loved by all, not hated by either's side. Michael Jordan was already a champion, so I missed the days when he was despised as a selfish ball-hog who would never beat a great team player such as Isaiah Thomas for a championship. Isaiah has since become a pariah in sports for many, jerk.
The point is, so much about the players I grew up idolizing I missed out on, felt bad about missing out on it, but thought watching highlight reels or stories about their journey's would catch me up on everything. But it didn't, and couldn't. Each generation needs their own journey.
So back to the tail-end of Jordan's first retirement. The world was desperate for Jordan to come back, or at least to find the next version.
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway was an explosive rookie with the Magic. Along with a young Shaquille Oneal, he was a revelation for many in their run to the NBA Finals. Penny exploded and Shaq's ego had had enough. He was bouncing to LA after the Rockets swept them, and the Magic were Penny's team. Shoot, the whole NBA was ready to become Penny's. He had a puppet and Tyra Banks. He was ready!
But fans weren't really ready. At least not Michael Jordan fans. I loved Michael Jordan like he was Jesus Christ. Couldn't really love him like I loved Christina Applegate off Married With Children, but I probably loved him more than I loved Al Bundy - which was a lot.
I loved Penny Hardaway his rookie year. I was ready to be a huge fan. And then people compared him to Michael Jordan. That's when my "gay-dar" went off, only it wasn't a gay-dar for gay people, but more to detect threats to the legacy of MJ. I loved you until you were seen as a threat. When Michael came back half way through the 94-95 year (?) and Penny schooled him in the play-offs I was pissed off! I joined the Penny hate train. Weren't that many people on the train yet, but had he stayed healthy and continued to threaten MJ, there would've been.
Jordan came back and dominated for 3 more years, but that didn't stop the hunt for the heir to MJ's throne. I would've loved Grant Hill. What's not to love? Except they compared him to MJ. Didn't hate him, but didn't really cheer for him.
Enter Kobe Bryant to the league. Who was not in love with this kid when he was a rookie? I dunno, maybe a lot of people. But I thought this kid was special. I loved his cross-over, his hops, and his SHOE! I was a faithful buyer of his shoe for quite a while - the "Feet You Wear".
The problem with Kobe was he was so damn good, and he knew it! He actually had the potential to be better than Jordan and WE knew it! Add Shaq to his team, the Most Dominant Ever (MDE), and Kobe's swagger looked big time gay. How can you be proud of anything you do, especially to threaten MJ's legacy when you have a 350 pound giant in the middle of the key crushing the opposition for you?! God, I hated Kobe!
But Kobe today is not the Kobe of yesterday. He's not the Kobe of 8 years ago, or the Kobe of 3 years ago. He's a different Kobe.
When the Lakers started putting their team back together with Shaq gone, there were a lot of growing pains to go through for Kobe, and the big question was whether he would make it. He had his struggles. He went from scoring 50 a game at will against Phoenix in one series, to not taking a single shot in the second half (?) just to make a statement. Selfish. He got some solid players around him, appeared to be trusting them more, and led them to the Finals against Boston two years ago, only to ditch them last second and play one on five and lose, all the while treating them like a battered wife. Selfish.
A lot of things about Kobe Bryant spell S-E-L-F-I-S-H. But maybe that's why he's a 5-time champ now. He was selfish enough to know how to get it. In tonight's game 7 against Boston when his shots weren't falling, he was selfish enough to grab every rebound in sight. I think he even got a few girls on the rebound at half-time. Who knows? He did everything within his power - as making shots is not always a choice - to contribute to his team. And like Jordan once kicked it out to Paxon, and later to Kerr, Bryant got the ball to guys like Artest and Gasol. SELFISH. Selfish for the win.
It's okay to hate Kobe for being as good as he is, but it's okay to love him, too. It's especially okay to love him for all the improvement we've seen in him as a championship caliber player.
It's also okay to love him because he's still not as good as Jordan was. And he's still not as good as Magic was. He ain't half-bad either, but if you have to hate, there's still time. He will still get better. As we saw with Jordan in the second half of his career, he was a very, VERY, efficient machine. Jordan made scoring look easy. Bryant still hasn't quite figured it out. Bryant is still taking the tough shots Jordan took earlier in his career which involve a lot of energy and athleticism and look great when they go in, but aren't the most reliable.
Jordan became stronger and bigger with age, and used it to his advantage. I don't know if we'll ever see a Kobe Bryant who backs people down, bumps off them and hits the fade away consistently, but it'd help if he wants to avoid the fate of Allen Iverson, a much smaller version of Kobe. Everything Jordan did later in his career with the Bulls was about conserving energy, tricking opponents, and finding the right timing to make his move. Kobe's still forcing it quite a bit.
Do I hate him for it? No. I've come to re-adopt Kobe a little the last 3 or 4 years. It's kind of like when you have a child who you love and hate with varying degrees as they grow up and give you problems and act like jerks. But when they're older, more mature, and calmed down, you stop fighting and have some cook-outs together and enjoy each other's company. That's how I feel about Kobe. As much as I hate him trying to be the next Jordan, I kind of want him to succeed in doing it. I miss MJ, but he'll never be young again. We need a new hero to cheer for. We need a new player to hate. And a new player to witness.
Kobe's the MJ of our generation. I won't have to read in books about how he was hated in his career. I won't have to watch old highlights about his struggles. So far, I've lived it. And that's why I'm finding it easier to love Kobe these days and cheer for him. I saw what he did to Phoenix and I saw what he didn't do to Boston. But I see how he's learning and getting better all the time.
So if you're looking for someone to hate, may I suggest a few: Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and maybe Chris Bosh (overrated). Someone to love today and hate tomorrow: Kevin Durant.
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