Originally published April 16th, 2016
As I headed home from work yesterday, I remembered needing to stop at the grocery store so I could make my bachelor fridge look less like all I eat is expired milk and condiments. I surveyed the fruit, trying to find something ripe, cheap and un-bruised, I heard a low “BOOOOOO!” come from behind me. I turned around, a little surprised, and saw an older man smiling cheekily, as he did it again. “BOOOOOO!” I must have looked confused, as I narrowed my eyes, because he replied, “It’s just something about that jersey, man.” I looked down and realized I was wearing an old Kobe Western Conference All-Star jersey. I laughed, and told him it was no problem. I’m used to it.
As I was checking out at the self-kiosk, settling on cereal for dinner because adults can do what they want, I heard someone trying to get my attention again. “Ay, yo,” it came, “I like that jersey, my man. Mad respect.” I looked up and saw a bag boy had stopped what he was doing to say something to me. In the span of ten minutes, I had been both congratulated and insulted for “caping up” for the Black Mamba. And both made perfect sense.
Such is life as a fan of Kobe Bean.
When I was born: Magic Johnson had just won the last title he would earn in his career. Michael Jordan was still being stymied by the Pistons every spring. Larry Bird’s back was starting to show the ramifications of carrying the Celtics deep into the violent scrum that were the Eastern Conference Playoffs from 1986-1989. What a time to be alive.
When I started pre-school: “Air Jordan “was in full effect, winning his first, second, and third titles before I had learned how to read chapter books. Someone, somewhere bought me a Bulls snapback for some reason. It might have been my mom when she took a trip to Chicago. I kept it, but I can’t tell you if I ever wore it even once.
By the time I was old enough to care: Jordan had done the whole “baseball/gambling suspension” thing, and come back with that “old man at the rec” (you know the one) type of game to save his knees. Sure, I drank Gatorade, ate Happy Meals and saw Space Jam like every other respectable mid-90s kid, but I was WAY more excited about Bugs Bunny being on the big screen than seeing “His Airness.”
Once I was old enough to care, the landscape was fairly wide open. I probably should have ended up a Bullets fan based on proximity, or even a Hornets fan considering how popular those teal Starter jackets were. But the prospect of cheering for a perennial loser didn’t appeal to me. I was a frontrunner, I still am, and I’ll happily admit it. I root for the teams I root for because they win. Green was my favorite color, so I still probably should have been a Celtics fan with those criteria, but they were awful in the 90’s too. Next most storied franchise: the Los Angeles Lakers.
People always wonder how I could grow up on the east coast my entire life and end up a Laker fan. It’s really not that hard to understand. Who was the funniest, most bankable and likeable star in the league in 1996? Shaq. AKA… The Diesel, The Big Aristotle, The Big Cactus, Mr. “Where’d you Get all Those Q’s From”, President BBQ Chicken, Superman, (you get the idea…) and what team was Shaq on? The Lakers. Point A to Point B. You saw Kazaam and you bought Shaq-Fu. Don’t even lie.
So, I started getting more into the team the more I watched them. Outside of Shaq we had Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and a bunch of dudes I don’t remember. Looking back, I can’t tell you how that team made the playoffs. My best reasoning: “the 90s were weird” and the juggernaut that has become the Western Conference was a Slim Fast drinking, every fad diet under the sun trying, “terrible horrible no good very bad” version of its current self.
There was this rookie I really liked watching because he dunked a lot. He came off the bench and he didn’t play much. But everyone seemed really into the fact that he was young. He looked old to me because when you’re 6 everyone does. He went from a shaven head to a completely robust afro in what seemed like a week. He made hard looking shots, he went around, up, across, over and through people. I figured, at the end of the day, I could ride with Kobe Bryant.
Kobe was the reason I got into basketball. He’s the reason I wanted to watch it. He’s the reason I enjoyed watching it. He’s part of the reason I tried – and failed- to play it. I wasn’t listening to commentary back then. There was no First Take and ESPN still showed highlights during SportsCenter instead of a moderately attractive blonde women asking a talking head leading questions for 6 minutes at a time. I could just consume the sport without an ulterior motive, and I liked what I liked. I didn’t feel a need to argue for or against it because there wasn’t anything to be for or against in the first place. This was a guy playing a sport I liked at the highest level it can be played. That made me happy.
This was before the Internet, so unless the Lakers were playing on Sunday afternoons, I didn’t get the chance to watch much. I was forced to turn to an old stand-by: the VCR. I would tape almost every major Laker regular season and playoff game that showed in my area. Then spend the next day watching and then re-watching my favorite highlights. I was wasting time on a primitive YouTube before anybody even knew what it was. There were days at a time when the NBA on NBC theme was stuck in my head. I would rewind Kobe dunks over and over again to the point that our rewind button eventually broke and everyone was forced to use a paperclip before returning tapes to Blockbuster. There are moments I can recall down to the actual game call, almost by rote, even now, two decades later. (“KOBE…. TO SHAQ!”, “KOBE BRYANT JUST SUCKED THE GRAVITY OUT OF THE TARGET CENTER”, “MAMA, THERE GOES THAT MAN AGAIN!”, “Ladies and gentleman, you have just witnessed the second greatest scoring performance in NBA history!” “Bryant with the save – got to get a shot here – Bryant with the shot – BANG!”)
Part of the joy of watching sports is the humanity behind it. We’d be much less interested if a series of robots had been programmed to play each other. We connect as much to the athletic feats and game as we do the narratives we craft around them. And when we fill in those blanks, the connection between the players and ourselves grows stronger through increased depth of understanding. Sports have the ability to breach great divides by providing shared experiences in the same way talking about a movie or TV show would.
I think every guy who claims to like sports has that one figure they know too much about. There are Patriots’ fans that know more about Tom Brady’s kids’ school schedules than he does. I’m sure there are Cavs fans that know what kind of almond scrub LeBron uses on his feet and makes sure it’s stocked at every drug store in a 40-mile radius. It’s why I always laugh when people make generalizations that reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” are only for women. (Ladies… the next time your man makes fun of you for watching E! or Bravo, ask him who his favorite player is dating or his favorite pre-game meal. He’ll know the right answer. I guarantee it.)
I think I’m that way with Kobe. I’ll defend him from any and every criticism that anyone can drum up. During one college spring break, I almost got into a bar fight in the Bahamas defending his credentials. I am that irrationally protective over him and his legacy. There’s a sense of gratitude that comes with how his athletic feats improved my “joy quotient”, and my supposed or assumed responsibility is to pay him back for it. Watching games late night with my best friend, celebrating with quiet high fives because we couldn’t wake anyone up. Debates over whether he actually jumped over that car (No, he didn’t, but it was fun to watch regardless.) Dunk, game winner, and flashy pass montages shared on Facebook walls. Having a bartender in the Houston airport refuse to serve me anything but Appletinis because I was wearing a Kobe jersey in McGrady country. Parties that stopped in college – as in the music was off, and everyone was watching during prime pregame hour on a Friday– because Kobe had just banked in a fade-away three to win the game. Having the team I cheer for make the Super Bowl, and not giving a rat’s ass because of the 81-point masterpiece that took place in the Staples Center.
To some degree, I’m sure my connection to him had a foundation built on sound marketing. Kobe was a player tailor made and cut to be shopped to my generation. He was in Sprite commercials with Tim Duncan and Missy Elliot. He was dunking on playground hoops in McDonald’s and Nike ads. He was hanging with Mr. Cooper, dunking on Anthony Anderson, and doing guest spots on All That and Kenan and Kel.
You may have noticed that throughout this piece I have used quite a few colons, and I wanted to offer you all my reasoning for it. In the English language, colons are used to serve as the divider between two analogous terms. Let’s take it back to 6th grade language arts for those who may be unfamiliar: green: grass blue:: sky. I started out thinking that constructing apiece around the many analogies Kobe has engendered through the years would be simple. But to paraphrase the great philosophers Chester Cheetah and Kermit the Frog “it ain’t always easy.” When I reflect on Kobe and the impact he’s had on me personally, and the basketball world at large, analogies just don’t really do him justice. He isn’t summed up by a simple comparison, or contrasts alone. He represented more than that. He was proof that hard work only serves to enhance natural talent, no matter the starting point. He showed that you’re never too good to learn from those who came before or after you. He lived his basketball life through actions, not words, expecting those who understood would follow his lead. Failure was expected, but it was never limiting. We were all blessed to witness his illustrious, awe-inspiring 20-year career. Love him, hate him, or really, really, REALLY hate him, the stalwart fact remains that if you are a hoops fan, he matters to you.
Thank you, Kobe. Thank you for everything you have done for me and the game that we both love. From the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism, to the cold-blooded dagger shots that silenced opposing arenas, you epitomize what basketball represents. It is the beautiful combination of art and science and you sought to and succeeded in becoming one of its most impactful students. I know I mentioned earlier that having an analogy for him would be too difficult, and while it is challenging, I think if I was forced to come up with something I could settle on something that is tried and true, just like the Mamba himself.