Bryant had never been a favorite of mine. Judging by the boos that rain down on him at every road arena, my attitude put me in the company of about three-quarters of all basketball fans. He was responsible for so much sports-related grief in the three cities I consider my “home towns” — Boston, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City — that the very sight of him pretty much made me vomit in my mouth a little.
Then James took his talents to South Beach and the Heat immediately became the best team in the NBA. Sure, the Spurs and Bulls had better records. But everybody suspected San Antonio’s new fast-paced style would not hold up in the playoffs, and Chicago had the advantage of playing in a much lighter division. After the Heat trounced the Sixers and were in the process of doing the same to the Celtics, I looked out West, where the Mavericks were dominating their semifinal series against the Lakers, and worried.
Pretty much everyone was rooting against the Heat then, thanks to a hatred of James that many fans have yet to get over. I never quite hated the guy, but I had to admit I was rooting against him that first year in Miami. I did not want it to come that easy for him. I did not want the greatest player on the planet to think he could simply orchestrate his own trade, then cruise to a championship with his buddies. I wanted him to win a ring eventually — just not that year. Yet James’ dominance presented a dilemma.
“I’m rooting for the Lakers this year,” I heard myself tell somebody, “because I honestly feel like Kobe is the only one who can stop the Heat.”
In what has been a recurring theme throughout my life, I turned out to be wrong. Dirk Nowitzki downed not only Bryant but also Kevin Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. He followed up by outclassing James, revealing guts that people previously doubted he had in him. Still, the very fact that when it came right down to it, I turned to Bryant to do what I felt nobody else could, changed the way I looked at the future Hall of Famer.
“It’s like superheroes,” Bryant told reporters on Sunday after he led the Lakers to a win in his native Philadelphia. “Superman could fly. Spider-Man has webs. Steve [Nash] can pass, and I can shoot.”
That is the thing with Bryant: He sees himself as a superhero — or even a super-villain — and therefore he becomes one. We may snarl at his attitude or decry the number of shots he takes, but when it comes down to it, he does the things in the name of victory that most of us would not be willing to do. He takes the shots many players shy away from. When his team falls behind by seven points with 48 seconds remaining, as the Lakers did last Tuesday in Cleveland, and everybody else simply accepts that this will be L.A.’s third straight loss, Bryant scores five of the final 11 points to make the Cavaliers sweat for their win. The guy never gives in, not even at 34 years old in the first game of a four-game road trip.
Whether we root for or against Bryant comes down to why each of us watches sports. If you cheer for the plucky underdog, then you probably do not have a No. 24 (or No. 8) Lakers jersey in your closet. If you enjoy watching excellence above all else, then Bryant most likely is part of your Holy Trinity with Tom Brady and Derek Jeter. Of course, you could just hate the Lakers, too.
Even in that case, though, we should all take a moment to appreciate Bryant this season. He is playing better than he has in years, scoring more efficiently and trying his darndest to teach Dwight Howard how to be winner. We should try to appreciate him because he is one of a dying breed. Although he came from an upper-class background and was a lottery pick straight out of high school, in many ways Bryant was less privileged than a lot of current stars. He attended local Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., not some private basketball factory, and while he attended as many camps as anybody, he was part of probably the last generation of players to be defined by their schools, rather than their AAU teams. When he looks at the player defending him, he does not see an old buddy from ABCD camp. He sees an opponent to be crushed.
If most of us are honest with ourselves, this is what we want out of professional athletes. We exult when Larry Bird and Julius Erving are at each other’s throats, because the fans despise each other so why shouldn’t the players? Kevin Garnett barks, Bryant scowls and all is right in the world. Love them or hate them, those guys honor the big bucks fans shell out for tickets by playing to their maximum effort, with full disdain for their opponents, every game. Nobody pays to watch bros be bros. If they did, the stands would be packed at beer league softball games.
Now that Bryant is on the team with all the new stars, it is harder to root for him. In many fans’ eyes, the Lakers have replaced the Heat as the team of mercenaries. Bryant no longer is the proud old battle-ax fighting against the new guard. He is just another guy trying to finagle a ring out of a system that allows superstars to dictate where they play.
He is a different player now, however. He probably could not stand up to the Heat all by himself, as I imagined he could two years ago. James has become too good, Bryant has aged and their supporting casts have changed drastically. Still, he would try. We are seeing that side of him now that Nash and Pau Gasol are ailing and Howard is struggling to fit in. Bryant is alone again, in a way, and although he can no longer carry the team on his own, he tries. Man, how hard he tries.