By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's Note: This article appears in the January 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I want Kobe to embrace the dark side. I want him to become a heel.

Kobe Bryant
It's time for Kobe to turn over to the dark side.

That's a term from pro wrestling, where the lines are simple: you have "babyfaces" (good guys) and "heels" (bad guys). When fans lose interest in a famous babyface, he invariably starts doing evil things, like Hulk Hogan changing his name to Hollywood Hogan in the mid-'90s. Hogan realized that fans were burned out after 12 years of Hulkamania. You can only watch the I'm-almost-unconscious-but-if-you-guys-start-cheering-me-I'll-raise-my-index-finger-and-start-hulking-up routine so many times. So the Hulkster made a savvy turn during his WCW days, blackening his beard and feuding with the resident babyfaces. And just like that, his career had a second life.

Well, this is what Kobe needs to do. The babyface gimmick isn't working. If this were wrestling, announcers would carry on like Kobe was a good guy ... only we'd hear the boos in the background and know it was just a matter of time before he turned. Kobe would intentionally miss a free throw against the Heat and then slam a metal chair over Jack Nicholson's head as the Lakers announcer screamed "Noooooo! Nooooooo!" And that would be that.

Real life doesn't work that way. For the sake of endorsements, athletes pretend to be good guys even when they aren't. During his glory days with Shaq, we heard rumblings that Kobe was petulant, more concerned about his legacy than anything. Even recently, he talked about how Shaq's departure provided a "challenge" for him, which is like Tiger Woods saying it's a "challenge" to play the Masters without his driver. As Magic Johnson taught us, you always, always, always embrace the Big Guy. But Kobe could never do it. Which always seemed strange.

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Then the rape allegations popped up, with Kobe's innocence taking a backseat to a larger question: did we ever know this guy? Since Kobe the player reminded us of the young MJ, we ignored unsettling and mounting evidence that he was a brooding loner who lacked Jordan's charisma. Everything that has happened in the past few months reinforced those sentiments. It isn't just that he forced Phil Jackson's exit or Shaq's shocking trade. It's the chilling way he still maintains his innocence. If Kobe can lie about those things so easily, should we believe him about anything? Who throws a teammate under the bus during a police interrogation, or tells reporters that a friend allegedly hit on his wife? Why have respected NBA icons like Jackson, Reggie Miller and Karl Malone questioned Kobe's character, with Jackson even writing in his book, "Was I surprised? Yes, but not entirely," when he heard about the rape allegations?

Fair or not, the overall Kobe package seems contrived at best, calculating at worst. Following the Malone debacle, his campaign to win back public support was downright awkward. During an ESPN interview, Kobe halfheartedly said he should call Shaq to patch things up, sounding like someone who kept forgetting to cancel a magazine subscription. Yeah, maybe I'll apologize to my old teammate for making it seem like he had sex with strangers, then paid them off not to say anything. I should probably do that. The more he tries to seem genuine, the phonier he seems.

Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan got angry -- and look what that did for him?

During a recent "road" game against the Clippers -- with half the crowd composed of Lakers fans -- I got to see Kobe in person. This is the "New Kobe." He's a leader, or so he thinks. It's as if Magic sat him down before the season and told him, "Coming out of timeouts, when the cameras come on, go to a teammate, drape your arm over his shoulder and pretend you're saying something insightful, then laugh and playfully slap him on the head." During one TO, Kobe threw a white towel at a frustrated Brian Cook, then embraced him 90 seconds later as if nothing had happened. Poor Cook's body was stiffer than a double martini. Hey, you can't tell your boss to screw off. Looking back, it was a goofy game: Clip fans booing Kobe, Lakers fans cheering him. Just another night in purgatory for Bryant.

I'm telling you, he needs to pull a Hollywood Hogan. After all that's happened, Kobe will never be totally cheered again. So why not go the other way? Wouldn't you rather be a memorable villain than a phony hero? Kobe should admit that he screwed the Clips over last summer, that he orchestrated Shaq's trade and Phil's departure, that he threw Malone under the bus for sport. Before home games, he should stand on the scorer's table and flip off fans. Maybe he could even hire a no-good manager with a cane. Embrace the dark side, Kobe. You're already there. You just can't admit it yet.

Where's Darth Vader when we need him?

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.