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How Kobe Bryant Made Everyone, Including the Haters, Respect His Game

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A sports fan who found Bryant difficult to root for during his basketball career grapples with the pain, and regret, he feels in the wake of his death.

Kobe Bryant, who died on Jan. 26, had fans around the world as an N.B.A. star, but his unusual upbringing alienated him from some fans.
Kobe Bryant, who died on Jan. 26, had fans around the world as an N.B.A. star, but his unusual upbringing alienated him from some fans.Credit…Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
By Claudio E. Cabrera
Feb. 2, 2020
I was in a CVS in Harlem when I first heard the news. My friend James, who rarely, if ever, talks about sports, had sent me a one-word text message: “Kobe?”

“Kobe what?”

He said people were saying that Kobe Bryant had died. I shrugged it off. I figured it was just a false alarm or a joke. But then I asked myself: Why would he joke about Kobe dying?

Kobe had come into the league just in time to step into the gap created when Michael Jordan retired, for the second time, in 1999. Growing up, I wasn’t a Jordan fan. Year after year, it was the same thing. Every June, the announcers Bob Costas and Marv Albert would utter the same eight words: “The Chicago Bulls are the 19__ N.B.A. champions.” Just insert the year.

At some point after the 1996 finals, when the Bulls dominated a really talented SuperSonics team and Jordan won his fourth title, I finally conceded: I don’t like this guy, but he’s surely the best I’ve ever seen.

During his playing career, the heir apparents were many but none ever quite panned out. Kendall Gill, Jerry Stackhouse, Harold Miner and so many others didn’t live up to the hype but were good players in their own right.

And then came Kobe.

The teenager straight out of high school. The N.B.A. couldn’t have asked for someone better. Kobe was brand-friendly, cookie cutter, global and he avoided issues of race. Not only did he mimic Jordan’s game on the court but he also borrowed from his playbook in life and the media. He was the natural progression from Jordan. He was the heir.

But I couldn’t relate to him. Kobe was a guy who looked like me and was my age but definitely didn’t grow up like me. I didn’t like him. I was the kid from the hood and I could smell that he was the kid who was not from there at all. His dad had played professional basketball — in Italy. And then he went to a good high school on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

He wasn’t me.

But as I looked around CVS in Harlem that Sunday, everything had come to a standstill. When I stepped outside onto 125th Street, one of the busiest stretches in New York City, it was as if all of the air had been sucked out of the sky. It was quiet. Everyone was looking down at their phones. Not just African-Americans but people of all races. Tourists. Residents. Everyone. And the first thing I thought about — besides questioning how Kobe could die — was how negatively I had been texting about him just a few days earlier with my friend Eric.

Isn’t Kobe retired? Why is he always on TV? Can’t he just do like most retired players and get out of the spotlight?

Kyrie Irving is now annoying because he’s friends with Kobe. He wasn’t like this before. If you listen to Kyrie you hear a lot of Kobe in him.

Jayson Tatum is playing better this year because he got away from what Kobe taught him last summer. Kobe took a year of his career.

And why does Kobe have an ESPN show that no one watches? No one is that pressed to watch Kobe analyze someone else’s game.

You name it, I said it.

I recognized his talent, but I just didn’t get him as a person until he retired. And neither did many other young black men. That’s why, with as many Lakers fans as there may have been, so many people rooted for the Philadelphia 76ers and their superstar Allen Iverson in the 2001 finals against the Lakers. They saw themselves in the small but brash Iverson. Think about it the same way many young black men viewed Duke and how many in the ’90s instead loved the Fab 5 or U.N.L.V.

But despite all of this, despite all of the critiques, whenever I stepped on a concrete court, I would always try to play like Kobe or Jordan. Love them or hate them, you understood their greatness.

When my friends and I would hate on Jordan or Kobe, it was just our small circle. Whether it was on basketball courts uptown or at our high school lunch table, we didn’t have phones to text or even reliable computers to chat on. Our debates would be handled with our mouths, not a keyboard.

What the social media era changed was that it allowed the fans on one side to meet the detractors on the other without having to be there in person. You had to sharpen your arguments for or against the biggest stars. Social media made the environment for these debates much more intense, and vicious.

I never hated Kobe, though I hated on him. But on the day he died, as the shock of the news morphed into an unexpected pain, I realized that I had grown up with Kobe even if I had never met him. The hurt I felt that day made me aware of the grip he had on me and his impact on my life, no matter how I may have viewed him. The air had been sucked out of Harlem; some of the air had been sucked out of me, too.

We wear our sports fandom very close to the chest. When I talk about my favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs, winning titles I will say, “We have five titles.” We.

As fans, we feel like part of the team and as though we should have a say in what athletes do with their lives. When I saw the news that Kobe had died, I wondered how we had gotten here.

In 1997, we could have never envisioned what Kobe would become on and off the court. When I saw him shoot air ball after air ball in a crucial game against the Utah Jazz in the playoffs that year, I was so happy because I felt that an arrogant guy had gotten what was coming to him. What I’ve felt this past week was the exact opposite.

Kobe dedicated his life to being better. I’m not going to pretend that I will never again dislike an athlete or talk trash about a player. It’s hard to not do that as a sports fan. But what I can do is learn to be better. And Kobe embodied that: In the end, when we thought he couldn’t let basketball go, he did. He found other avenues for his competitiveness. Kobe started realizing that no matter how seriously we take sports — we — in the end, it’s all just a game. It’s time for some of us to realize that as well.

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