Kobe Bryant and the Meaning of Rivalry

Like any kid born in Boston in the late 1970s and treated through childhood to the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, I grew up believing that the Los Angeles Lakers were and are the enemies of all mankind, the hated foe to be vanquished in June, even if Bird and friends only managed to do that once in three tries (winning in 1984 and losing in ’85 and ’87) head-to-head in the Finals.

But when Magic Johnson revealed he had HIV in 1991…well, I’ve already written about that. Sure, he played for the hated Lakers, but he was and is still a human being and to wish ill upon him is several bridges too far.

Enter Kobe Bryant, who passed away suddenly in a helicopter accident Sunday at the age of just 41, younger than not only your humble columnist but indeed younger than a guy who’s still an active player in the NBA as this goes to press and who indeed celebrates his 43rd birthday on this same tragic Sunday, namely Vince Carter.

I’m a Pacers fan these days. Have been since I needed someone to root for during the playoffs when the Celtics fell on hard times after the retirement of their Big Three and the death of Reggie Lewis. My “team for April and May” became just plain “my team” for real when I realized sometime during the Paul George/Danny Granger era that I was rooting for the Pacers when they played against the Celtics during the regular season.

Which means for awhile there I was a Kobe hater from two separate angles, not just when he and Shaquille O’Neal made Reggie Miller and friends look like “lol Leastern Conference” during the 2000 Finals but when Kobe and Pau Gasol went head-to-head with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and the Celtics in 2008 and 2010.

But the thing about sports is when you “hate” a guy, it’s the ultimate sign of respect.

I hated Magic Johnson because he got to celebrate two titles at the expense of Larry Bird.

I hated the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons because not only did they consistently get the better of the Celtics as Bird and Kevin McHale went into decline due to injury, but because guys like Bill Laimbeer could provoke Bird into a fight (SBNation recently did an excellent episode of Beef History about this on YouTube that’s worth a watch.)

Even guys I generally like—Michael Jordan and LeBron James—were the enemy when they played against the Pacers in the playoffs.

But hate is a strong word.

There are certain political figures for whom news of their death would, in my view, be seen as cause for a sigh of relief and for celebration (I won’t say who. There’s plenty enough of it on both sides in this toxic social media world we live in that you can just assume I’m talking about your guy and hate me for it.)

But athletes?

When news of Kobe’s passing hit Twitter like a sledgehammer in a dark room, blind and unexpected yet vicious and devastating, all I—a guy who “hated” Kobe during his playing days—could do was to lapse into a thousand-yard stare and an emotional funk, trying to deal with which begat the rambling, unedited-on-purpose stream-of-consciousness piece you see before you right now.

“No. Not Kobe. Enough already, 2020” was the best I could do.

And as rumors and unconfirmed reports and confirmed reports and everything else in the maelstrom of scoop journalism hits in real time—were his kids on the chopper with him? How’s his wife, is she OK? Anyone else connected to the NBA or the Lakers? What about the family of the person flying the chopper?

Well, you start to realize that in sports, the death of villains hits as hard as the death of heroes, because sports are so much larger than life precisely because, like a good comic book, it’s just not the same story without that adversary who raises the emotional stakes.

The Celtics beating the Rockets in 1986 didn’t ring the same to eight-year-old me as it would have if Magic and the Lakers had shown up for a rubber match. I never bore any ill will toward Hakeem Olajuwon the way I did for Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

And if the Celtics had beaten, say, the Phoenix Suns or the San Antonio Spurs or the Portland Trail Blazers or whoever in 2008, it wouldn’t have had that same delicious feeling as wiping out the hated Lakers did.

But that’s just it. You mourn the death of the truly worthy adversaries, you’re devastated on behalf of their families, you see them as greater than mere strangers who played a children’s game for your entertainment.

That’s how you know just how much of an all-time great Kobe Bryant was, why he’s one of the greatest players ever to play the game, a guy with a solid argument for third behind MJ and LeBron on the GOAT list…and plenty of Lakers fans think third is too low.

RIP Kobe. You were that rarest of legends…the man hated in life and loved in death.