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 a production of 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 Michael Jordan to root for. I watched virtually every second of those Lakers teams during their three-peat, and anyone who tells you Shaq was far more important than Kobe to those teams when it came to winning playoff games is kidding himself. If you truly believe that, I don't believe you actually watched those Lakers games. You just watched the highlights. That's like arguing with someone about The Great Gatsby when they've only read the CliffsNotes. Sorry, but you miss all the important subtleties.
One murky trip to Eagle, Colo., complicated things though, and I've never really been sure what to make of Kobe 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 he conducts himself plays a factor. Over time, I've defended Kobe in public, cursed him in private, embraced him again and grown fed up with his weird behavior.
But those emotional fires didn't die out completely. Watching the opening game of the Western Conference finals this week, won by L.A. thanks to 25 points in the second half by Kobe, I remembered how much the San Antonio Spurs bother me. They're sort of like writer Richard Ford, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book Independence Day. Brilliant in small doses, 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.
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 New York 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. I'm in. I want the Spurs, who have been cast 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 as the carnage unfolds.
But that is the beauty of sports. Somewhere in this country, maybe even in Maryland, there is a kid who loves LeBron James or 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) can't stand Kobe Bryant. Just as I couldn't stand Michael Jordan.
We need those counterweights in sports. We need villains. We need someone who makes our blood boil, someone who we can't possibly embrace despite his considerable skill, so we can have someone on our side of the scale. Someone we shower with unconditional love.
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.