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June 1, 2013

The Jazz Fan Who Loved Kobe

By any means of evaluation it never should have taken me this long to give birth to a healthy respect for Kobe Bryant. How I ended up hating him in the first place is somewhat a mystery considering that when Kobe first arrived to the league he

1) had the best hair this side of Donyell Marshall11. A style so hideous the Men in Blazers would be forced to resort to my favorite of their appearance jokes: "That haircut only makes sense in braille." and
2) he represented nothing more than road kill in the warpath of the Utah Jazz.

In fact it was a feeling of sympathy, not hate, that Kobe first brewed in my heart, after he airballed three critical shots in a 1997 Jazz-Lakers playoff series. How could you not feel bad for a rookie who airballs three chances at being a hero and ends up ostracized by the opposing crowd as his reward? I realize years later that such a question was the equivalent of asking how you could not feel bad for Voldemort after his kill-curse backfired on Harry.

Because in the years following the ‘fro and the airballs, Kobe did some things. In particular, he did a few things that made me and a host of others hate him. He…

… ballhogged. All the time. Scored 81 once.

… won a crapload of stuff. An MVP, various all-NBA awards, 5 championships, including at one point three in a row.

… imitated Michael Jordan, sometimes successfully, other times not so much.

… pouted and demanded a trade from his team.

… got involved with some shady happenings in Colorado.

… quit in a series deciding game 7 against the Phoenix Suns! He quit! He took three shots in the second half!

… made play-by-play announcers gush about him so lustily that seeing the name Jeff Van Bryant pop up on ABC wouldn’t have surprised anyone.

… forced referees to award him free throws merely by raising his eyebrows.

… and most angering of all, he terrorized my team for years, the climax of which came during a 3-year stretch where Kobe ended the Jazz playoff hopes three straight times. To add insult to injury he made it look easier as he aged, needing 6 games in 2008, 5 games in 2009 and only 4 games in 2010.

So you see, the hating part was easy. Very easy. And the fact that the hate eventually turned to respect was simple as well. All players as they age become harder to hate, as respect for the elderly is an emotion embedded in each of us — perhaps in me more so than others. (Inside joke, ask my friends) But the liking part? The fact that I have actually cheered for Kobe? The inner transformation that has made me now at times actually hope that Kobe performs well? That was a little more difficult.

I can pinpoint the moment in which the tide started to turn, however. Lakers versus Magic, March 7, 2010. Matt Barnes, a character as deplorable as any thanks to his obnoxious physique, tattoos, hair and attitude (take your pick) was trying every tactic possible to frustrate Kobe. Hard fouls, grabs and shoves, “accidental collisions” while running up and down the court. The highlight of Barnes’ tactics, and the moment that made me smile and think to myself, “you know, I kind of like what just happened, even though it was Kobe who did it”, came as Orlando was inbounding a ball on the baseline. Barnes, the inbounder, attempted the most childish, embarrassing play in the basketball book - he faked like he was going to throw the ball straight into Kobe’s face, hoping to make Kobe look like a fool as he flinched or jumped out of the way. Now watch the video to see what happened.

No, really, watch it. You have to in order to understand.

Not even a movement. No eyebrow raise. No widening of the eyes. Not a flinch. How is it that even possible? How, when a sphere the size of your head is being launched at your face from point blank can you override the natural reaction to evade and instead stand as if nothing is happening whatsoever? I was in awe. Still am, whenever I watch it.

It was in that moment that I saw a Kobe I could like. Like Atticus Finch receiving Bob Ewell’s tobacco spit to the face without answer, Kobe reacted to Barnes’ nags in the ultimate fashion: he ignored him. He acted as if Barnes didn’t even exist. It’s likely that Pau Gasol’s olive oil hair gel was a greater annoyance to Kobe on that day.

I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s where the love started, and it’s in Kobe’s pursuit of Michael Jordan’s legacy that it grows. Sandwiched between those two points I realized there are other factors that helped Kobe win my soul as well. There’s the fact that we have balded together. The time that he saved the U.S. by single handedly beating Spain in the 2008 gold medal game. His biting and honest remarks to the media. (The comment on floppers remains my favorite: “Where are your balls at?”) Oh and how about the will to play himself to death in every single game? That’s pretty cool too. You’d think after running around for 54,000 minutes of professional basketball you might start to lose the fire a little bit. Not so with Kobe.

But if tonight’s injury finishes off the Kobe we’ve come to know these past 17 seasons, it’s his quest to outdo Jordan that I will miss most. Kobe wants more points, more championships, more anything than Jordan. “I just want No. 6, man,” Bryant was recently quoted saying. “I’m not asking for too much, man. Just give me a sixth ring, damn it.” It’s the reason he plays so hard every night, through various injuries, through a bench comprised of Sacres and Johnson-Odoms, through the temptation of complacency. Remember why Kobe staid in last year’s All-Star game after getting a concussion and broken nose? (Hint: he was mere points away from breaking Jordan’s all-time All-Star game scoring record.)

It’s a lost cause of course, maybe the most lost of all lost causes. Kobe could do it all and he’d still never match Jordan. We know it and deep down in that leather-bound soul of his, probably in a place Kobe himself refuses to recognize, the knowledge that Jordan can never be usurped exists too. So as Kobe fights to reach an unreachable goal, another famous Atticus Finch moment comes to mind. True courage, the lawyer said, is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Kobe’s won a lot – a ton in fact – but he’s not going to win the Great One, especially after this achilles setback. But that doesn’t mean his pursuit will end up entirely fruitless. At the very least he’s gained one new fan.

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