I never liked Kobe Bryant.
If you’ve peered through any of my stories throughout my career, or through my work here at STASHED, this isn’t something that is too hard to figure out. I didn’t like his arrogance. I didn’t like his shoes. I didn’t like that he acted like he was a superstar before he even entered the league. I didn’t like that he thought he was Michael Jordan. I didn’t like his shot selection. He had some pretty cool dunks, but he didn’t fly with the grace of my favorite dunkers. I didn’t like his tattoos. I didn’t like when he went to prom with Brandy. I didn’t like when he tried to rap with Tyra Banks. I didn’t like the Lakers, so by proxy, I didn’t like him. And that’s okay. Because even by Kobe Bryant’s own accord, he’s an asshole. I’m an asshole.
That was part of my problem with Kobe when he first got into the league. It was all too much too soon. The Hollywood attitude, the cockiness, the swagger – he’s been an overconfident asshole his entire career, and when he was an 18-year-old rookie in the NBA they tried to make him anything but that. You know who they are. Smiling in McDonald’s commercials, Sprite commercials, Nutella commercials, Adidas ads, you can always kind of tell that wasn’t really Kobe.
You could always kind of tell that Kobe Bryant was an asshole. I’m an asshole, we have a sixth sense about these things. As he won, collected accolades and trophies, while racking up endorsements and popularity, you can start to see the real Kobe start to come out. He had the world in the palm of his hands, but there were times you could tell that it wasn’t enough. He was barely 25 years old and had three championship rings and was one of the faces of a legendary franchise, a franchise he idolized as a kid. What could you possibly be upset about? As it turns out, his disdain was pointed toward his MVP teammate Shaquille O’ Neal. From the outside looking in, that shit-eating grin that he put on as he sat next to O’Neal in post-championship celebrations might have translated to jealousy for some. But nobody had more of a front-row seat to O’Neal’s game than Bryant, and game-wise it might have been hard for a 6’6″ do-everything swingman to relate to a 7’0″, 300-pound freak of nature.
It was then that I started to understand Kobe a little bit more. Because if there is anything that assholes understand, is that assholes get things done. They may not be liked, but dammit they are effective. I understood Kobe. Still, I didn’t like him. As Shaq took his ball and went to Miami, I enjoyed seeing Bryant suffer. I enjoyed the early playoff exits. I enjoyed watching him put on all-world performances surrounded by people like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. In my eyes, I felt like he cheated the basketball gods by chasing away a player and a coach that guards like him would kill for. He was paying for his sins against the basketball gods, and I enjoyed every second of it.
The Bean’s prime would be essentially wasted on years playing with some of the most forgettable names in NBA history. Slava Medvedenko, Smush, Kwame, Chris Mihm, and Ronny Turiaf were some of Bryant’s best options when he was putting up historic seasons. The reason why Bryant has only one MVP season to his resume has just as much to do with him spurning the basketball gods and not doing all he could to keep that championship nucleus together. His 81-point outburst, the greatest single-game exhibition in the modern era, didn’t even earn him an MVP award that year. However, it was during these down years that I discovered exactly what Kobe Bryant was made of. It was during these years that Kobe essentially said that it doesn’t matter who you put around him, he’s going to put in work. It was like he knew that he took the road less traveled, spurned the basketball gods, and he was going to give it everything he had to prove them wrong. He was going to give his all to prove everyone wrong.
And on certain seasons, and on certain nights, he proved us all wrong.
Championships would return to Kobe. Individual accolades would return. As Kobe returned to the top of the mountain, it made me question why I disliked this guy.
That brings us to last night.
Kobe’s final game in his illustrious 20-year career came to an end, unfortunately, on the day that the Golden State Warriors were set to make NBA history and break one of the most coveted records in team sports. The world’s elite poured into the Staples Center to see The Black Mamba take one final bow before he limped into retirement. His best games were far behind him, and many were expecting to see Bryant put up another one of his past-his-prime games that he’s done all year as we gear up for the start of the NBA’s second season known as the playoffs. For the first five minutes of the game against the Utah Jazz, it looked like that would be the case as Bryant started the game 0-5. But myself, along with a lot of NBA fans, forgot one all-important tidbit: Kobe Bryant is an asshole, and he’s not going out like that.
The NBA’s greatest gunner had one last extendo clip in his arsenal and he unloaded every last round of them last night against the Utah Jazz. Bryant tossed up an astonishing 50 (?!) shots, which resulted in an even more astonishing 60 (?!?!?) points. In Kobe’s final game, he became the oldest player in NBA history to score 60 points and set the NBA record for the most points scored in an NBA player’s final game. Stephen Curry became the first NBA player to hit 400 threes in a season and his Warriors became the first team to win 73 games in a season, and nobody gave a fuck. Especially, not Kobe.
Once more, he led his Lakers to a come-from-behind win against the Jazz behind a 17-2 game-clinching run in which Bryant scored 15 straight points. As Bryant scored his final points as an NBA player and ran off the court, he was immediately embraced by his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Shaquille O’ Neal as celebrities like JAY Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and more cheered wildly. It’s as Hollywood an ending as you can get in Hollywood (without winning a championship, of course).
Maybe, I had this guy all wrong. After 20 long years, maybe it was the nerve to tell a once-in-a-generation big man to hit the bricks is what made him great. Maybe it was being surrounded by less-than-stellar talent and still dropping an insane amount of buckets is what made him great. Maybe that crass attitude and confidence as an 18-year-old isn’t what made me not like him – maybe it was because what Kobe had was what I wished my favorite players had in them. Maybe Kobe shouldn’t have been the exception to the rule, but more like the standard.
I mean, look at this lovey-dovey NBA that we are in now. Rivals go to the beach together, hang out with each other at parties, and never say what they truly feel at the risk of being politically incorrect or losing a potential endorsement. Kobe cared about that stuff at first, and then he didn’t. I mean, he really didn’t. And now he’s gone, and so are most of the players like him. While I’m quite certain there are still plenty of assholes left in the NBA, none will be as divisive, as arrogant, and most importantly, as good as Mamba. If you live for the drama in sports you know that there is nothing quite like a good villain, and the best one just hung up his Nikes for good.
I never liked Kobe Bryant. I still don’t. But all in all, it was better that way. And he would want it that way.
Photo Credit: Getty