I am a Kobe Bryant hater. At least that's what Lakers fans tell me. When Mamba exploded for a house-record 61 points in Madison Square Garden recently, they probably thought I rooted against him. (Which I did, but only because I love Bernard King, the old record-holder.) I even received a few "Can't wait to see how you put this one down!" e-mails afterward. (Which I will.) But it got me thinking: For sports purposes, what does the word "hater" even mean?
In the case of Simmons v. Bryant, it can be interpreted in one of five ways:
1. I always see my Kobe glass as half empty. I enjoy disparaging his abilities, rooting against him and reveling in his failures. When he succeeds, I look for ways to discredit him. In short, Kobe cannot win with me. I am his antifan.
(Not true. I loved watching young Kobe; his 2000-01 season remains sublime for me. When he carried a dreadful Lakers squad into the '06 playoffs, I pushed for him to win MVP. One week before the 61-point game, I wrote on an ESPN.com chat that Kobe was my clear-cut No. 2 MVP choice, behind LeBron James, and marveled at the way he has refined his offensive game; with his knees slowly fading after almost 1,000 NBA games, he added a deadly fallaway and learned to pick his spots on drives. He still gets his 30 every night, just with less wear and tear. Shrewd. Believe me, I am not an antifan.)
2. Kobe has become such a polarizing player and person that if you aren't rooting for him, it means you're rooting against him. Look at me and The Mag: I'm a hater, but they give him print lap dances twice a year. Two extremes.
(I don't think this is true. If anything, it's dumb to assume that either extreme reveals a personal agenda.)
3. Kobe is the best NBA player and has been for some time. If I'm not willing to admit this, then it can only mean I hate him.
4. I don't like him personally, which affects the way I think of him professionally.
(I will admit to being slightly guilty here. He hasn't been the greatest teammate this decade, both on and off the court. It's been documented ad nauseam, even in books by people paid to coach him. When he accidentally injured Andrew Bynum's knee recently, I found it interesting that Kobe's reaction was more "Crap, there goes my title!" than "Oh, no, my teammate is hurt—I hate seeing him in pain!" I also thought he quit on the Lakers during their deciding playoff games in 2006 [against Phoenix] and 2008 [against Boston]. Those are my main issues. They have never stopped me from evaluating him fairly.
5. I hate Kobe. Like, I really hate him. If I were driving and saw him crossing the street, I would run him over.
(Hmm … that would depend on whether I was driving a stolen car and the hit-and-run couldn't be traced back to me. Just kidding. This is not true.)
Of those five hater theories, only No. 4 applies to some degree. But there's a huge difference between being perceived as a hater and actually hating someone. The hater gimmick sprung from the Internet, where bloggers and message-board posters rip people to shreds on a daily basis. It's a logical tactic: If you want to cause a splash, but you're not talented or funny and lack an interesting take, what's left? You attack. As those attacks turned more and more venomous, the most common counter to them became, "You're just a hater."
Now it's one of the most misused words in the English language. We hear it constantly. Because I've written negatively about Kobe over the years, and because I root for the Celtics, the hater jury convicted me without a trial. I can no longer write about him without hearing I'm just a hater. My opinion has been invalidated for everything Kobe. Any Lakers fans familiar with my column probably saw this topic, winced, said to themselves, He's hating on Kobe again, then read it anyway—even though I'm not a Kobe hater, and do not I hate him.
Here's what I don't understand: Only final scores are black and white in sports. There are shades to everything else. That's what appeals to us. In Philly right now, they don't know what to make of Donovan McNabb's career. Is he underrated? Overrated? A winner? A leader? Handicapped by a lack of talent? In need of a fresh start? Or is everybody picking nits because it's freezing cold and the Eagles haven't won in a million years? There isn't a right answer. And so Philly fans argue and argue about him, but really, it's kind of fun. That's why we like sports in the first place. We like arguing about this stuff. What the hell else would we do?
That's how I feel about Kobe.
I like watching him and arguing about him. I like being bothered and thrilled by him. And I really like when he plays like Michael J. Fox instead of The Wolf. See, I was weaned on the Bird era in Boston: the joys of making the extra pass, not caring about stats. Kobe's 61-point game represented the best and worst of basketball to me. His shotmaking was transcendent: a steady onslaught of jumpers, spin moves and fallaways made in his typically icy style, as efficient an outburst as you'll ever see. On the other hand, his teammates stood around and watched him like movie extras. In 37 minutes, Kobe took 31 shots and another 20 free throws. He finished with three assists and no boards. He may as well have been playing by himself on one of those Pop-A-Shot machines.
A friend of mine, a lifelong Knicks season ticket-holder since the Bradley era, e-mailed me afterward: "That was the worst night maybe of my life in the Garden. How horrible it must be to play with Kobe. He was signaling constantly to his teammates to get him the ball. THREE ASSISTS AND NO REBOUNDS. Talk about a team guy." Another New York buddy was so distraught that Bernard's 60-point Garden record fell so ignominiously—with Kobe's padding his stats against a reprehensibly bad defense as a shocking number of fans chanted "MVP!"—that he e-mailed me the next day: "I literally didn't sleep last night." A third friend was there and swore that Kobe eyeballed Trevor Ariza after Trev made the mistake of swishing a 24-footer in the fourth. And yet, the national reaction seemed to be, "Wow! Kobe scores 61! He's unbelievable!" Spike Lee even called it "genius." (Move over, Einstein and Mozart.)
Really, it was the defining Kobe game. He elicited every reaction possible from lovers, haters and everyone in between. When LeBron arrived in New York two days later and notched his amazing 52/9/11, he didn't break Kobe's new record but definitely cheapened it. LeBron's 52 came in the flow of the offense. When the Knicks doubled him, he found the open man. When they singled him, he scored. He dominated every facet of the game. It was a complete performance, basketball at its finest, everything we ever wanted from King James. And it happened 48 hours after Kobe's big game … in the same building. Crazy.
I've been comparing those two games ever since. Never has basketball seemed more simple to me: I would rather watch a 52/9/11 than a 61/0/3. I would. It's really that simple. It's a matter of preference. So don't call me a Kobe hater, call me a basketball lover.
And if Kobe ever put up a 52/9/11, yes, I would love him, too.
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