xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Putting Kobe Bryant in context, and why we need sports villains

(KVV note: I seem to have hit the blogging wall a bit this past week. 1,000 apologies to those kind souls who came here recently and saw zero new entries. I'm like a marathon runner who is dry-heaving at the 17-mile mark. Deadspin editor Will Leitch was absolutely right in his appearance on Costas Now when he said that blogging is really hard work. Forgive me as I try to do better.)

Because sportswriters are supposed to be completely objective, and because I didn't grow up in Baltimore, I'm a little reluctant to admit which professional sports franchises I grew up rooting for.

Advertisement

I've already copped to being a Lakers fan, however, way back when The Life of Kings was standing on its wobbly legs like a newborn colt and I was confessing my affections for both Magic Johnson and Rick Reilly.

Magic Johnson remains, to this day, my favorite athlete. Unlike so many teenagers of my generation, Michael Jordan never really mesmerized me with his gravity-defying skills. I will grudgingly concede that he is the greatest basketball player of all time, but I rooted against him far more often than I ever rooted for him. To me, Jordan was a phony. He was cocky and selfish, and I couldn't bring myself to appreciate his ruthlessness. His dominance felt too impersonal.

Advertisement

Magic was my guy. He did things well, he had the coolest nickname in the history of sports, he shared the ball, and he did it all with flair. And though he was an assassin on the court, he twisted the knife with a smile on his face. When Jordan and the Bulls whipped a flawed Laker team in the 1991 Finals, I was devastated. Few sports memories in my youth stung so much.

Because of Magic, my basketball allegiances have always been tied to the purple and gold. It was, at times, an uncomfortable partnership after Magic retired, cheering for Anthony Peeler, Cedric Ceballos and Nick Van Exel during the lean years. But when Kobe Bryant arrived, I felt like I had finally found a Laker I could embrace again. We were similar in age, we were both hungry to prove ourselves, and I loved Kobe's mini-afro and the ice water in his veins. I showed Shaquille O'Neal the proper respect and showered him with public praise, but deep down, I occasionally felt indifference. Watching Shaq was like watching a rhinoceros perform in Swan Lake. On some level, it's graceful and artful, but there is also simply too much power and girth to really appreciate how much skill is involved with pulling it off.

With Kobe, though, it was like having my own personal Jordan to root for. During Kobe's second year in the NBA, my best friend from high school and I decided during college spring break that we absolutely had to drive from Missoula, Mont., to Vancouver, B.C., to watch the Lakers play the Grizzlies. Lakers coach Del Harris refused to play Kobe for most of the first half, and I was irate. (I let Del Harris know it, too.) To me, there was always an excuse for Kobe's missteps. So what if he shot too much? Didn't Jordan? Who cares if he has Shaq? Which player has the ball in his hands when it matters most?

I watched virtually every second of those Laker teams during their three-peat. I was dating a girl from Portland at the time, and we watched Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in the Rose City, in a house where I was surrounded by Blazers fans. I kept my cool for most of the game, despite pithy barbs from one environmentally-conscious, Birkenstock-wearing, recycling enthusiast with a soul patch (my ex-girlfriend would dispute this, but that's how I remember him). But when Kobe split a double team late in the fourth quarter and drilled a jumper to put the game away, I stood up and brayed like a fool, "How you like me now, Blazers fans? Enjoy the offseason." (I nearly had to eat those words when LA blew a 3-1 lead in the series before winning in seven.)

One murky trip to Eagle, Colo., complicated things though, and I've never really been sure what to make of Bryant since. Although they are probably reluctant to admit it, I'm fairly certain there are at least a small number of Ravens fans who have similar complicated feelings about Ray Lewis after what happened in Atlanta in January 2000. It's not really my place to decide matters of guilt or innocence, but as a sports fan, I do get to decide how much emotion I want to invest in an athlete, and how they conduct themselves does play a factor in that decision. Over time, I've defended Kobe in public, cursed him in private, embraced him again, and grown fed up with his weird behavior. His interview with investigators in Colorado, posted on the Smoking Gun years ago, nearly erased all those fond memories I have of taunting Portland fans.

But those emotional fires didn't die out completely. As I was watching a replay this morning of last night's Lakers-Spurs game, won by LA thanks to 26 points in the second half by Kobe, I remembered how much the Spurs bother me. For me, they're sort of like writer Richard Ford, who won a Pulitzer Price for the book Independence Day. Brilliant in small doses, yet painful and boring in large ones. I know I'm supposed to appreciate them, and I've tried. Lord have I tried. But I'd be lying if I said they entertained me.

There was Kobe, though, on my TV screen, carving up the Spurs with the same kind of ruthlessness that Jordan used to display in the playoffs. He doesn't have that mini-afro anymore, and even though he shoots less than he used to, and gets along better with his teammates, he still seems cold and cynical, ruthless and mean. He's not quite the guy I felt like I could relate to when we were both 19 and trying to prove ourselves.

But for the first time in my life, I realized I kind of like rooting for the villain. The bad guy. It's probably how Yankees fans feel when they get out of bed every morning. I don't care that he's a little selfish, or that he's kind of a diva. The Lakers are probably the favorite to win it all this year, and Kobe's quest for redemption is probably going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, myself included. But I'm in. I want the Spurs, who are being cast (probably correctly) as plucky underdogs even though they're the defending NBA champions, to get crushed. I want to see Bruce Bowen in tears and Tim Duncan look like one of those expressionless statues on Easter Island (wait ... that's already a given.)

But that is the beauty of sports. Somewhere in this country, maybe even in Maryland, there is a kid who loves LeBron James or Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett the same way I loved Magic Johnson when I was fighting through pimples and adolescence.  And I bet he (or she) cannot stand Kobe Bryant. Just like I couldn't stand Jordan.

We need those counterweights in sports. We need someone who makes our blood boil, someone who we can't possibly embrace despite their considerable skill, so that we can have someone on our side of the scale. Someone we shower with unconditional love.

Advertisement

Someone who makes us want to stand up in a room full of strangers, thump our chest, and claim him -- flaws and all -- as one of our own.

Advertisement

PHOTO: Los Angeles Times

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement