I hated you. Watching you dominate every game you stepped foot in. Watching you beat my favorite players and favorite teams with regularity. I hated how good you were for the game of basketball because I made a decision early in my fandom that Kobe Bryant was not my favorite player.
And I think that’s how you liked it best.
All the hate, criticism, heckling, and rivalry could only mean one thing. You had earned it. No one hates bad players or teams that don’t win. We hate players and teams that keep our favorites from advancing further in their success. We hate players that prove time and time again how great they are, no matter how much we wanted you to be bad. Watching every shot you put up, quietly thinking to ourselves “please no,” and inevitably watching the ball go through the net. Again. And again. And again.
Being from a small town in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas, there wasn’t an obvious team to root for. Being too young for the competitive spirit of rooting against players or teams, I generally settled into a love for the game itself. “I don’t have any favorites,” would often be my answer when asked about the subject. I loved watching basketball. Playing basketball. Talking about basketball. The sport was slowly but surely becoming the biggest part of my young life, and you were there every step of the way to help shape my love of the game.
When I was seven years old, my father bought me tickets to a preseason basketball game set to take place in our state capitol, Little Rock, AR. The game would be the rising Miami Heat who had just acquired Shaquille O’Neal, and the defending champ Detroit Pistons. As you might guess, my “favorite” team at the time was the team doing the best. I walked into the stadium a Pistons fan ready to watch Chauncey Mr. Big Shot Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, both Ben and Rasheed Wallace. That was my team.
That is, until I caught a glimpse of the flashy young superstar that my seven-year-old-self had never heard of before. Dwyane Wade.
Kobe vs The Flash
On more than one occasion that night, Wade snuck along the baseline and rose for an explosive alley-oop jam. His movements were so fluid, the decisions so quick. His whole mantra just felt… fast. At the end of the game, Wade spoke to the crowd and thanked everyone for coming out. Nothing was possible without the fans, he clarified. He said it to the crowd. However, It felt like he was speaking directly to me. That day I learned who The Flash was, and from that moment on, I loved him. I had a new answer to the common question. “Who’s your favorite?” Dwyane Wade. It was easy to love a young star that seemed to do and say no wrong. He was flashy, charismatic, and successful. Everything that a young boy needs in a role model.
Despite all of this, he was never the best. He was never even the second best at his position. Of course there was always Jordan. And then there was always Kobe. The discussion heated up after the first two names with guys like Iverson, Drexler, West, and Wade. The answer was clear in my eyes; Wade deserved to be there. However, not even I, the self-proclaimed biggest fan of D-Wade, could argue that he was better than Kobe. I resented you for it. I had chosen my player. My role model. My hero. And he never stopped chasing you because he could never catch you. In fact, the image of you banking in that game-winner over my idol is forever burned into my mind. It is forever one of my least favorite highlights in NBA history.
Despite having a clear cut favorite player, I still loved the game too much to be bogged down by having only one team to cheer for. Throughout my youth, I continued to cheer for the best of the best. Even with my love for the sport as a whole, I tended to always lean towards rooting for the Eastern Conference over the West. This may have been due to my love of Dwyane “The Flash” Wade. Maybe I loved watching guys like LeBron James and Dwight Howard throw down awe inspiring dunks together in the All-Star Game. Even still it could have been due in part to watching Vince Carter and Allen Iverson tear up the league from the Eastern Conference in my youth. Nevertheless, my loyalty remained on the opposite coast from the city you ruled. Following this trend, it was only natural that I became a Celtics fan during the first true “Super Team” era. I loved Garnett’s passion and studied Allen’s shooting. Young Rajon Rondo was a magician on the court.
And, more importantly than any of that, they were the storied rivals of your Los Angeles Lakers. A team I had already grown to root against had just become even more of an enemy. There you were again. The perfect counterpart to the team I had chosen to be a part of. I loved watching you miss. I loved watching you lose games. More than anything, my young heart filled with joy as the Celtics dethroned you in the 2008 Finals.
Through it all I never wavered in my love for Wade. I still haven’t to this day. The Miami Big Three era came and went. LeBron made The Decision. They lost to Dirk. Then won two in a row. Then they couldn’t get it done against the aging Spurs. And all of the sudden they were gone. The dynasty ended almost as fast as it began. There was little to hate in those days. Anyone that rooted for them was labeled a band wagoner or a fake fan. It almost made cheering for the team less fun. I loved Wade, and I loved having LeBron as his running mate, but my love for the Heat organization as a whole had faded.
A New Era in LA
Throughout Miami’s run, I had taken notice of another duo making waves in the league. A young bull-like forward with unprecedented leaping ability was making Sports Center his home. Rising superstar Blake Griffin had turned more than a few heads in his first year with the other team in LA, the Clippers. I loved tuning in every night and watching his monstrous highlight jams. Early in his second season, the Clippers made a move for superstar point guard, Chris Paul. At the time, Paul was another player that I watched more often than not. I loved his game, his IQ, his well-spoken manner, and more importantly than all, the fact that he was denied the chance to be your teammate on the Lakers. The vetoed trade sparked an almost instant rivalry. I loved Blake and Chris. I hated you and the Lakers.
It was a match made in heaven.
Pursuit of Hatred
I had spent my entire life as a basketball fan rooting against you. From Wade’s individual pursuit to Boston’s big three run, you were the perfect counterpart. Now here I was, 23.5 hours from your city, becoming a fan of the very team that shared your arena and stole your point guard. It was only fitting.
I have been a Clippers’ fan ever since. As I grew older my competitive nature became stronger. Within this, I began to truly dislike other teams and players, mainly those that stood in the way of the Clippers’ success. Steph’s Warriors were one of them. The Grit and Grind Grizzlies were on the list. James Harden and his Rockets coming back from down 3-1 against the Clippers left me no choice but to feel anger towards them. But no matter who was playing well, beating us, or posing a threat, I always circled the game against the Lakers on my calendar. Especially when your name was on the roster. I would think, “Man I just want to beat Kobe and I’ll be happy with whatever else happens.”
During your later years this was often the case. As the Clippers core grew together and built a championship contender, your teammates grew old or left altogether. The Lakers will likely always rule LA, but the Clipper were proving to have the upper hand on the court. The weight of carrying your team and fighting for dominance in your own city was beginning to take its toll. Through injuries late in your career, I began to take notice of how little time you had left. I hoped that rupturing your Achilles wouldn’t be the end for you. You were too much of a competitor and too great a legend to let an injury drag you down. And it didn’t. You fought through and came back just as strong.
In fact, your greatness never wavered through the end. I remember sitting in my college dorm room watching your final game. Tears in my eyes. Before me was a legend leaving one last stamp on the game he loved. The game I loved. Your drive and will were inspiring, as they always had been. If I had only taken a few breaks from resenting your greatness to step back and appreciate it, I would have seen it sooner. You were a super hero. Even at age 37, there you were torching a playoff contending NBA roster. 30. 40. 50. 60 points in your last hoorah. Unbelievable. Mesmerizing. Inspiring. All capped with two words that will likely never be forgotten. Mamba out.
The Real Kobe
It wasn’t until your playing career was over that I truly accepted your greatness as it was happening. I watched you become a voice of inspiration. For the NBA. Women’s basketball as well as youth sports. Leaders and followers. Everyday people. Everyone already knew your name but you were starting to give them the full picture of who Kobe Bryant was.
You were much more than the amazing basketball player that we all loved to hate. You were a genuine person that truly wanted to help everyone be the best they could be. No one higher on that list than your daughters. Your involvement and dedication to GiGi and all your girls was more inspirational in my eyes than anything I witnessed you do on a basketball court. The Mamba Mentality that has been defined in your game and in your life will live on forever in the way those who idolized you live their lives. It will live on the basketball court. In gyms around the world. In goals and dreams being chased. And in the way we treat each other. Anyone who embodies the Mamba Mentality will be a better person for it.
January 26th, 2020, will be a day that I never forget. I’ll always remember where I was. What I was doing. What I was wearing. I’ll always remember the sinking feeling that hit my stomach as I read the words. My mind was in disbelief. My first instinct was anger at those who could make up something so terrible. But as I continued to search, more and more signs pointed to the truth. You were gone. Your daughter was gone. Seven other people were gone. The world stood still. At least it should have. Looking around and seeing everyday life go on like normal felt like a cruel dream that I could not escape. Those close to me did not understand the feeling that shook me to my core that day. In all honesty, I did not fully understand it until I began writing this letter. I was supposed to hate you. Obviously I would never wish harm on anyone, but at the same time, why did it feel like I had lost a loved one? The majority of my basketball life had been devoted to rooting against you. So why did it feel like my childhood hero had been taken from me?
Your mentality was the reason so many worked harder. You laid down the framework for how to out-work everyone when no one was watching. You were the figurehead in a never ending pursuit of greatness. My favorite players wanted to be as good as you. My favorite teams wanted to be as good as your teams. All of my role models held you as one of their highest role models. Despite never being on your side, you helped to form my entire basketball life. All of my opinions, favorite players, favorite teams. They were all because of you.
Every good story is defined by the villain.
Thank you for being mine.