People use the word "hate" a lot when they talk about sports. They use it so often, it has no meaning whatsoever.
Everyone in Minneapolis hates Brett Favre—unless, of course, he winds up playing there—even though most of them would feel nothing about him had the Falcons never traded him to Green Bay in 1992. Lots of people hated J.J. Redick when he was averaging 20 a game for Duke, but who hates a guy who's getting eight minutes a night in Orlando?
Sports hatred is situational and generally metaphorical. Play-by-play announcers remind us that the Raiders hate the Broncos and the Sox hate the Yankees, but those alleged on-field enemies share the same agents and eat in the same restaurants and tip the same exotic dancers. If sports hatred feels real to the hater, it's a self-styled fiction: hatred for the purpose of play. About 99% of the time, it's a totally constructed emotion.
But that final 1% is all I need.
This is why the tension between Shaq and Kobe continues to fascinate me, even deep in the doldrums of summer. I love thinking about it. It never stops being interesting. Shaq and Kobe hate each other for real; I'm convinced of this. They despise each other in a way that's not only rare in sports but rare in life. They hate each other so much that neither would ever admit it, lest the other man get some sort of abstract satisfaction from the admittance of the loathing. O'Neal dismisses the conflict as comedy, and Bryant pretends he doesn't care, but those are the predictable defense mechanisms they use when faced with uncomfortable emotions. The reality is they want to kill each other. I can't prove this, but it feels obvious. And it makes me like each a little more and a little less.
Every sports fan with a laptop and no life has heard O'Neal's freestyle rap about Kobe's inability to win a title on his own, punctuated by Shaq's relentless (and arguably valid) question, "Kobe, how my ass taste?" And everyone has found this material hilarious. The semi-extemporaneous lyrics also accuse Bryant of destroying Shaq's marriage (by reportedly telling Colorado police after his arrest for sexual assault that the Big Aristotle paid women for their silence after the ends of affairs), which is slightly less funny (although probably more valid). Now, Shaq is a funny guy and a charming fellow and—most important, at least from a PR perspective—a hyper-jolly goofball who likes to give toys to sick orphans. So as a culture, we tend to take his side.
But his rap was still pretty weird. Go back and watch it again. Its only goal was to humiliate and emasculate Bryant, and it was conducted in a context that left Bryant no recourse. O'Neal knew Kobe couldn't respond, which is why he seemed to enjoy the performance so much. If Kobe took the situation seriously and called a press conference, he would seem weak and humorless. If he tried to respond with a rap of his own, it would be an inorganic disaster: Kobe would probably try dressing like the 1981 version of Reggie Theus, hire the Neptunes and come across like a chick from Northern State (the Brooklyn hip-hop group, not the D2 Wolves from Aberdeen, S.D.).
Bryant can't do cool that isn't directly related to basketball. And this drives him crazy, because he wants people to like him. (I don't think he needs to be loved, necessarily—just liked. Or at least not actively disliked.) His only revenge is to tape a still from Kazaam on his bathroom mirror, stare at it every morning to remind himself of the man he hates, fixate on that hate at the gym for the next six hours and then drop 82 whenever LA plays Phoenix. He has no other option.
It's this mutual desire to humiliate that makes the hatred between Shaq and Kobe feel so different to me. This isn't like the feud between Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent—that was just two guys who wanted to punch each other because they were: a) superficially different, but b) fundamentally the same. That was competitive; this is personal. Kobe and Shaq want to destroy each other's persona. Each wants to damage his rival's legacy because, 20 years from now, their legacies are all either one will have. By stressing that Kobe "couldn't do it without me," O'Neal was trying to negate the fact that Bryant has in fact won three titles.
Shaq is suggesting that Kobe is only a second-tier legend, more like a statistically impressive nonchamp (Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin) or a world-class, ring-wearing role player (Scottie Pippen, Kevin McHale). In the NBA, you cannot be truly transcendent unless you've: a) won a championship, and b) been the primary reason for your team's winning that championship. Shaq is attempting to rewrite history, trying to rebrand Bryant as a nonwinner. This kind of attack serves no purpose and offers no personal benefit, but he does it anyway. So what's his motive? There can be only one: hatred. He simply hates the guy.
This, I suspect, is what Shaq thinks about Kobe: You betrayed me. I tried to be cool with you, but you're not a real guy. You got yourself into trouble, and the first thing you did was bring up my name for no reason. Now my kids live somewhere else. When we played together, all you had to do was concede I was the focus of the team and let people make up their own minds about which of us was more important. But you made the Lakers choose between us, and you were younger and healthier, so they traded me to Miami. And that was embarrassing for me. So I'm going to embarrass you for the rest of your life. I am going to prey on your social insecurities and your need for appreciation. And I'm gonna do this because I hate you.
Kobe, of course, sees things differently. He probably thinks about Shaq like this: You know I'm better. You know it. And that should be the only thing that matters. And I know I told a reporter you were fat in 2003, and I'm sorry about that. But you were fat, and that made you less effective and injury-prone. I'm just being honest here. Basketball is not a game; it's a science. Why does personality have to matter? I realize I shouldn't have dropped your name to those cops, but I thought my life was over, and I panicked. Everyone seems to like you no matter how you act, so I tried to associate my behavior with yours. Besides, you don't seem particularly depressed about your wife's being gone. In fact, you seem to be having a great time making me look like a bozo. Why are you doing this? You have made it increasingly difficult for me to enjoy my own greatness. And I hate you for that.
George Bernard Shaw (who spent most of his adult life making random comments that writers could later use in magazine columns) once said that hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated. At least in this case, that seems pretty true. But which of these revenge-seekers is intimidated more? In the eyes of the public, there's no doubt O'Neal is winning this war. I wonder, though, if that actually means he has already lost. If Shaq honestly believes all the things he rapped about, would he need to say them? Probably not. Which is why this grudge doesn't get boring: Faced with the possibility of moving on and moving forward, neither of these guys can do it. What's more, they don't want to. It's part of who they are. They love it.
And the love is what true hate is.
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