Much love, Kobe – even from the haters

Everyone has a different relationship with Kobe Bryant, and it is an uncomfortable subject for me in some ways. You see, I didn’t like him. As recently as a few weeks ago, I know I’ve participated in conversations about how much I disliked Bryant on and off the court.

As a San Antonio Spurs fan, the way he used to will the Los Angeles Lakers to wins would annoy me. The way he celebrated his championships was frustrating. I was shocked by the way the Lakers kept Kobe and not Shaquille O’Neal. I was sickened by his legal issues and the fact that he demanded trades made me think he was a petty loser. People saying he was better than Tim Duncan was nothing short of an insult. The NBA, in allowing Pau Gasol to join Kobe for virtually nothing perplexed me. And I couldn’t believe people praised him for scoring 60 points on 50 shots in his final game.

But every Batman needs a Joker. Every hero needs a villain. And to enjoy the game of basketball, I needed Kobe Bryant. Just like Lakers fans needed him to rebuild the franchise and win two more championships, just like Team USA needed Kobe to finally join the national team to help them get back to winning Olympic gold. They wanted him to be there. We all wanted him to be there.

That was one of Bryant’s true gifts: he made you care, even if you didn’t like him.

Others had different relationships with him, and this is evident across the world of sports and art. The outpouring of pain from the basketball community is overwhelming.

His importance to the game is undeniable, and I could list figures and stats to back that up, but there’s no need really, especially in light of what’s happened.
After winning his final two championships, and after a handful of injuries, it would be fair to say that Kobe Bryant’s competitive fire lost some of its heat, the black mamba’s venom didn’t seem quite so poisonous.

During that final game before retiring, his teammates were telling him he needed to shoot more – something that didn’t happen often during his career. He starting helping younger players, and offered them advice to support them through injuries.

In recent years, he was seen taking his daughter Gianna to the Lakers and Sparks games. He wrote children’s books, created podcasts for children, won an Oscar. He promoted women’s basketball and other women’s sports, and his work in basketball media made his impact on the game even more noticeable. Maybe he had learned from his previous issues around sexual assault and homophobia?

I always felt that if you don’t have anything constructive or positive to say about a situation – good or bad – then you shouldn’t say anything. So when the heart of basketball broke on the weekend of his death, I wondered whether I should speak at all. But having watched Kobe for basically the whole of his career, and given the way he annoyed, frustrated and sickened me, and the way I was shocked, insulted and perplexed by how he carried himself on and off the court, I realised that the last thing Kobe would want iS for someone to hold back. He demanded people give their all to a task, and he appreciated the criticism, and fed off of the hate. This side of Kobe’s life needs to be told.

No human is without their flaws, and perhaps Kobe had more than most, but what I might consider negative elements to his character, made him the player he became. It made him want to get one more than Shaq, it made him the perfect Joker to Tim Duncan’s Batman, in my eyes at least.

But more than that, Kobe made the NBA more exciting. He helped basketball continue its global rise.

And he went on to become more driven as a husband and father than he ever did as a basketball player.

He will be missed, even by the haters. If you’re reading this, you’ll make up your own mind as to whether or not I fall into the ‘haters’ category. But one thing I am sure of is how thankful I am to Kobe Bryant. And I know I’m not alone.