I. I've always been an outsider. The only Sikh guy with a turban and a beard at my middle school, in my high school, in my Economics class at UCLA, in my MBA program at UC Irvine, in most of the rooms I walk in, at airports. It's just me. I'm used to the stares, I don't even notice them any more. There's very few people I relate to at this level, very few people I can talk to about it in this way. I'm at the stage in my life where I have embraced being the outsider, and to tell you the truth -- I don't think I can function any other way. This wasn't always the case, not even close.
You see, sports are more than a form of entertainment to me. Sports have been been my defense mechanism to combat social anxiety that plagued me as a young guy with no other way to fit in. I was able to force myself into conversations that I wasn't a part of after I overheard some kids talking about a sports topic that I knew something about. Sports were the reason that I went from the front of the bus talking to nobody, just looking out a window (if I was born 10 years later, I guess I'd just be staring at my phone) to the loud guy in the back talking about the Lakers or whomever else we were talking about. This took years, and because I moved to the U.S. from the strange land of Canada in 1998, it took me a while to truly learn American sports, specifically the NBA.
While I picked up the basics of the NBA and followed the Lakers casually, I didn't become a die-hard fan until the 2003-2004 season. I was at an age (17) where I started to understand more of the nuances of the game, and I started to follow more of the news about the team and the league as a whole. Not a bad season to really get into the Lakers, right? The Kobe case drama, Shaq/Kobe drama, Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the team, it was a crazy year. I got so invested in the daily "made for Hollywood" nature of the team and more importantly looked forward to being the person who would be able to talk about it with the cool kids at school the next day. The one thing that always drew me to Kobe over the rest of the other Lakers was the fact that he seemed to be on his own -- much to his own doing, for sure -- and while I was sad with the way the season ended, I became a die-hard Kobe fan.
Embracing Kobe the way I did was what solidified my confidence in being comfortable with who I was and allowed me to thrive in social situations that I would never have considered being a part of. I started college in 2005, and I made friends immediately who knew me as "that crazy Lakers fan." I was obsessed. I knew every fact about Kobe, read and heard any interview he ever did -- and in some ways started asking myself -- "What would Kobe do?" It's a dumb thing, but it's helped me and I'm not ashamed to say that. Kobe's mentality; his love and his passion for his craft, his "take no prisoners" attitude is not one that I can replicate, but it is one that I can try to learn from. It's why I defended him so veraciously as he was blamed individually for the dismantling of the Shaq/Kobe Lakers -- this wasn't just about Kobe, it was about the person that I saw myself in, the person who helped me every day and didn't know it.
II. The Low's and the High's
Being a fan of Kobe, as is appropriate, has been a complicated experience. Isolating 2 specific moments that describe my personal low point with Kobe and high point with Kobe were easy, however.
The Low Point
When Kobe demanded a trade in the summer of 2007, I was a mess. "Why? Didn't he want to be a Laker forever? Why did he say that stuff in the parking lot video?" That wasn't really what I was asking, what I was really asking was "why does Kobe want to leave me and what did I do to deserve this as a fan?" I was 20, I was emotionally invested -- after years of defending him to "haters," Kobe was going to leave me now? I didn't know the finer details of the reason for him to leave, and thinking in 2016 terms it doesn't seem so outlandish given that he was in the physical prime of his career trapped in a rebuilding project. I continued all summer to sit in the car for an extra 15 minutes every time I could just listening to the radio, tuning into AM570 trying to get more information -- this is also when I discovered Vic the Brick (FEELING YOU!). It never occurred to me that Kobe could ever leave and in the summer it just seemed inevitable. Even as the season progressed, I felt myself not fully engaging with the season and Kobe until it truly became clear that Kobe was going to be staying. I felt betrayed; felt that my efforts in defending him and relating to him were all for naught.
The High Point
My highest point as a Laker fan was certainly the 2010 NBA Finals victory over the Celtics, but I qualify one moment higher as a fan of Kobe. The 2012-2013 season brought Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the team along with championship hope with a starting lineup of Nash, Kobe, MWP, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard and quickly crumbled into a miserable season. The coaching situation was a mess, the health of key players was poor, and it just seemed like a team ready to crumble on the weight of it's own expectations. Kobe wouldn't have it, though. Kobe busted his ass, playing almost 39 minutes a game (48 minutes one night!), with the highest eFG% of his career, to drag the sorry-ass Lakers to the playoffs. He was relentless. Amongst that, he had to deal with Dwight Howard.
People wonder why I get so personal with my dislike towards Dwight Howard, and here's why - he tried to rot my perception of Kobe while wearing a Lakers uniform, and I'll never forgive him for it.
"Despite Kobe Bryant shooting at a career-high level, Howard has mocked Bryant's shooting stats behind his back when he hasn't shot well, leaving Lakers teammates feeling awfully uncomfortable. Bryant has tried to connect with Howard, tried to support his free-throw failures with glowing words about how great Howard can be and tried most recently to accommodate that "inside-out" insistence by rising up to shoot and half-looking at the rim, half-looking for Howard."
And, on Dwight's way out, Howard apparently insisted, according to former ESPN reporter Ric Bucher that the Lakers "fire Mike D'Antoni and amnesty, or at the very least muzzle, Kobe Bryant."
I have never been a bigger fan of Kobe Bryant than I was during that season. Never been more emotionally invested in his success, personally. I didn't want anybody else to have a big night -- I only wanted Kobe to succeed. There came a point in the season that for the first time in my life I was a bigger Kobe fan than a Lakers fan.
I remember the night Kobe played 48 minutes in Portland like it was yesterday. I vividly remember how crazy it was and while I blamed Mike D'Antoni for letting it happen (especially in hindsight due to what was coming next), I was also astonished at what I was witnessing. Kobe is ageless, he is perfect, he is immortal, and he is doing this despite being so disrespected in his own locker room. He was the outsider again, doing it like he's always done it -- with full effort, tenacity and purpose.
And then, the next game against Golden State on April 12, 2013. Kobe once again, doing whatever he can to get the Lakers another win and momentum heading toward a playoffs that the Lakers might have missed if it wasn't for his efforts in the last few weeks. At this point, Kobe is must-watch TV, and this game was particularly entertaining. Steph was having a great night, foreshadowing what was coming from him, and Kobe and the Lakers were with them step for step. If I remember this correctly, Kobe had taken one or two big hits driving to the basket and I (and others) wondered if it was time for him to slow down -- after all, his last game he had played the full 48, and had not rested at all this game! Maybe take a game off? And then, it happened.
Followed by this:
I've mentioned that sports are more than a form of entertainment for me. One barrier that had never been crossed, was crossed on this night: watching Kobe answer questions to the media after the game was the first time I cried due to sports. I cried because Kobe didn't deserve it. Selfishly, I'm sure, I felt that I didn't deserve it either. "Was Kobe done? Is he ever going to play again?" I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to say goodbye - it all felt so wrong, and unfair.
I can say today that to me, in my mind, when I tell people younger than me about Kobe -- I will tell them that Kobe Bryant retired on April 12, 2013 and I'm thankful for every minute of his career.
III. Kobe was the flawed hero that I needed in my life at an age when I needed it the most. He made mistakes, he could have been better in some situations, and I'm sure plenty of people will point those out as we get further and further away from his retirement. What I take from Kobe is his relentless work ethic, his attitude to give it his 100 percent every damn night no matter what the circumstances are, and his competitive spirit. Kobe taught me to love basketball, to embrace it at every level and I thank him for that too. Most importantly I'll remember that being an outsider is acceptable -- I should embrace it, be undeniable, and nobody can keep me from achieving what I want to achieve.
From one outsider to another, I can never repay you for all you've given me - but I can continue to be inspired by you. Kobe Bryant, I thank you.