Those who loved Kobe Bryant called it his will to win. It got him cheered in arenas worldwide, as the Black Mamba drove young Chinese fans into hysterics just as easily as he would in downtown Los Angeles. These fans looked at Kobe and called it an indomitable confidence, a belief that there was no feat he couldn't accomplish as long as he kept working hard with unparalleled diligence. "Relentless" is the word that most easily comes to mind, which often most aptly described the onslaught that Bryant would unleash on a nightly basis. Fans were swept up in its wake. Those who loved Kobe Bryant couldn't love him more.
Those who hated Kobe Bryant called it selfishness. It got him booed in arena worldwide, as number 24 had jeers rained down upon him in front of hostile crowds in Spain, with even more vicious receptions awaiting him in Boston, Sacramento, Phoenix and with the most hostility coming in his hometown of Philadelphia. Those fans hated Kobe's perceived arrogance, a faulty belief in himself that took shots away from open teammates and promoted the wrong way to play the game. "Stubbornness" is the politically correct word that comes to mind, though there are much more crass terms uttered when its come to describing Bryant. Detractors weren't hard to find when KB24 came to town. Those who hated Kobe Bryant couldn't have hated him more.
And now here we are, just days after one of the greatest guards in the game announced this would be his last season, and it feels like the latter group no longer exists. And nothing more emblematic than in Philly last night.
Kobe Bryant has always been booed in Philadelphia. From his first game there nearly twenty years ago to even games in a decade after he claimed his second title on the Sixers's home floor, the City of Brotherly Love treated their native son like an estranged turncoat uncle. The Mamba was jeered every time he touched the ball, as if he had been in battles with the local team like he were in San Antonio or Denver or Portland. The town that would seemingly love him only second to Los Angeles would be Philly, where he won a State Championship as a teenager and grew into a young man, was seemingly the one that hated him the most. Until Tuesday evening, that is.
For perhaps the first time in his professional career, Bryant was treated as the conquering hero that he has been for the past 19 seasons, with chants of M-V-P sprouting from the crowd as often and early as sopping wet threes came from the Mamba's hands. It was as if the love the Philly crowd should have had for him the whole time had built up behind a dam of hardened feelings and misguided betrayal and finally, mercifully burst wide open. It was very much Kobe's night, from the pregame presentation with his Lower Merion High School coach and Dr. J himself, Julius Irving, to the curtain call-worthy applause after the final buzzer. Absent was the vitriol and venom that Philly seemed to have reserved specifically for him (though anyone that's been there knows that's absolutely untrue -- they have enough for everyone). It was a hatred that was mired in the fact that he was so good. In a way, it was respectful --people showed their admiration by reacting, whether it be good or bad. Seeing the complete opposite last night was just... weird.
For anyone that had observed Kobe's whole career, it was a strange, surreal sight and in many ways, ironic.
On Sunday afternoon, word had come down from the Player's Tribune website that Bryant, in a finely penned essay from his own hand, had announced this season would be his last. While he proclaimed that his trademark competitiveness remained, he felt that his body was telling him the very opposite. He was content leaving the game that had sustained and fueled him for so many years, alluding to the fact that there could be more to life than just basketball.
The announcement was at the same time stunning and expected. One one hand, it was merely a long awaited proclamation on paper that had long since been exclaimed on the court. Bryant has played horrible this season, but again, like an essay on paper, nothing has looked quite as bad as seeing just how fossilized he's been on the hardwood. The official word was Sunday, but the writing has been there for months.
One the other hand, the essay was just another stunning turn from a player and a man who has so rarely shown so much humanity. I wrote last week that throughout his career no matter what adversity he faced, Kobe Bryant was never much to face humility. Not a Hall of Fame coach, not generationally spectacular teammates, not a nation full of pundits or arenas full of cursing fans. However, it's been time, it feels, that's finally humbled the Black Mamba.
The Bryant we've seen over the past several weeks is a person that I almost don't recognize. He's a softened man, willing to smile in circumstances where formerly such muscle movements didn't exist in his face. Whereas I'm used to a steely cold glare and a burning fire of competitive hatred emanating from the Mamba like an army of thousands, I've seen a whistful veteran living in the moment and reveling in the spirit of the game, win or lose. It's not that Kobe doesn't want to win these games -- I'm sure it's privately extremely embarrassing to him that he'll have been a part of three of the worst Lakers teams ever -- it's simply that the player that people loved to hate has ceased to exist. The stone cold competitiveness and will to win has been muted to a point that it's almost unbelievable.
And oddly enough, even though the trademarks that have made legions of fans to love him and an equal amount of people to begrudgingly respect him have been absent, now it seems that he'll be heaped on with universal love and support.
All these years, Kobe Bryant has done things his way. Many called him a ball hog and a team cancer. But to Kobe? He simply thought that him being a ball hog was the best way for his team to win games. If he shot the rock 23 times and made only five shots, he believed his 24th shot would be his sixth make. His reasoning? A rock solid belief in himself molded from a tireless work ethic. It caused many to hate him, but even more to love him.
Strange that when these qualities are most muted -- when Bryant seems the most tame -- is the moment when he is most applauded. As ever, when the world zigs, Kobe Bryant zags. Seeing this de-fanged Mamba has been unsettling, to be perfectly honest. A humbled, retrospective vet is far from the sociopathic basketball killer we've come to expect. As Lakers fans, we're waxing poetic about the waning days of one of the greatest in franchise history, let alone arguably one of the game's greatest players ever. What we're feeling is being projected through Kobe right now. But is that what we want? A venomless, nostalgic Bryant, placid in the face of mounting losses? Compliant to the ravages of aging?
This isn't the Kobe I'll remember. I'll remember the guy who wanted to pull the hearts out of the Charlotte Bobcats in a meaningless game in February. I'll remember the cold blooded assassin who saw seven-footers as a momentary hurdle rather than a solid brick wall. I'll remember one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen, in any sport.
I won't remember whoever this guy is. I don't want to.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino