(Credit: Silver Screen and Roll, username: ________key)
To most Suns fans, indeed most non-Lakers fans, the news would be taken somewhere in the range of glee to apathy. Yet, I find myself thinking - reflecting - on the impact Kobe has had on me, and I find it profound that despite my strong dislike for the player, for his team and for the image he projects, I respect him. The sheep mentality - bias, homerism, hate, whatever you want to call it - I try to distance myself from (it's the reason I don't pay attention to any of the football codes any more). It's equally as infuriating to read fans say that Kobe will be back better than ever, because Kobe, as it is to read others say that it's justice paid to a player and a franchise that have had more than their share of the pie. It's a strange thing to do in sports, and maybe it's the journalist coming out in me, but I do try to be objective. Often, objectivity fails, so I'll then settle for the next best thing - open mindedness (something I try to apply away from sport, too).
When I first started following the NBA, the only things I knew were Jordan and Shaq - and I started following in 2007. Because I came to the sport with very little prior influence, with no existing bias, I was able to form opinions from scratch. The first decision I made as a fan of the NBA was to support the Phoenix Suns - I caught the end of Seven Seconds or Less and fell in love. The next decision was to work out whether I did or did not hate the Lakers... which didn't come so easily. Because I didn't know NBA history, because I didn't know the rivalries, I was indifferent to the Lakers in the beginning. Slowly, through countless repeats of the "Greatest Moments in Playoffs History" ad that runs during broadcasts - you know, the one where Walton fouls Nash but it's called a jump ball instead, and Kobe hits the game winner - and endless consumption of anything NBA, I developed a dislike for the Lakers and No. 24.
The Western Conference Finals of the 2009/10 season, and remarks made in regular season games prior, tipped dislike into hatred. Even when Kobe fails (airballed the game winner), the Lakers manage to find a way (Artest putback) to shatter dreams - that run was the Suns' best chance at a title since 1993/94, and will probably the last one for a long while yet. For Kobe and the Lakers to take that away was infuriating.
But then, the Lakers stopped finding a way. Kobe did as Kobe does, but LA stopped winning. At least, the championships stopped. That made things easier, to see that entitled Lakers fans were 'suffering' through back-to-back second round playoffs losses. The dynasty was crumbling. Then, Dwight and Nash happened... for a while, the hatred returned, even greater than before. It was near criminal to think of Nash as a Laker. Needless to say, the way LA started the season soon quenched the anger. Indeed, as the season has worn on, the hatred has started to subside again into dislike, and if it weren't for the extra lottery pick in play for the Suns (part of the Nash sign and trade), I expect the indifference would be present too.
I've come to realise that I appreciate being able to see past my purple and orange tinted glasses and see the NBA as a league, rather than as one team. The NBA isn't just about one team - all thirty franchises have a story to tell. I love that I'm in a position to hear them, or in the case of Kobe and the Lakers - at least between 2007 and now - heard. It's been an enjoyable consequence of my habits to have seen and heard so much of the Lakers and Kobe, because I've been able to watch some of the best basketball the world has to offer. Don, from Lakers blog With Malice wrote of his recent change in opinion regarding LeBron that to hate on him is to miss out, because love him or not, he's an incredible player. I realise now that I feel the same way about Kobe - he may not be the most affable character, but he's one heck of a player.
A Kobe hater would point to his mid-00s failures, the alleged rape, his arrogance, his scoring inefficiency... any fault they could find. To me, as much as a still dislike Kobe and his team, that's a shame. The game against the Warriors is the ultimate summation of Kobe as a player, in my opinion: scorer, leader, fighter... and one more, that I hope opens a lot of people's eyes - martyr. I always believed Kobe was selfish - as a whole, not just when it came to shot distribution. There's always been a fuss over how Kobe has been able to play through broken fingers, sprained ankles and other relatively minor injuries - impressive, but by no means legendary. What Kobe did in this game, and in the games prior, was true heroism. Fatigue, knocks and sprains were all overcome... until breaking point.
Kobe proved to me - to everyone - that he's willing to literally destroy his body to get his team to the playoffs. He has apparently (yet to be confirmed by MRI) torn his achilles tendon completely - as in, there is no longer a connection between his calf muscle and his heel - and as his final act, stepped to the free throw line and made both free throws to give the Lakers a two point lead. With a completely torn achilles tendon. It has taken me until now to believe it, but that moment was Kobe Bryant epitomised.
It seems only fitting that Kobe is brought down in much the same way as the mythological hero his injured tendon was named after, because throughout his career Kobe has seemed as untouchable, as unbeatable as Achilles was in myth. For the sake of good basketball, we can only hope the arrow to Kobe's heel is not the fatal blow it was to Achilles - we're not ready for a post-Bryant NBA, much the same as I suspect the man himself is not ready for a post-NBA Bryant.
Love him, hate him or merely dislike him, all I ask is that you open your eyes, ignore your biases and give Kobe Bryant the respect that he truly deserves.