Nike released a new video to commemorate the imminent burial of basketball corpse Kobe Bryant, digging deeper into their branding strategy that casts him as both hero and villain, because dualities are extremely profound. So from a slew of athletes we hear both bland admiration and what at times feels (thrillingly) like genuine resentment, notably from Kevin Durant.
“He pissed me off a lot,” says the Thunder star. “He happened to say, ‘You guys can’t even sit at the lunch table with me. I got five championships. What do you have?’” He gets the last word, too: “Asshole.”
I watched the video but could not relate, since my most recent interaction with Kobe was less an assessment of his legacy and more like visiting him in hospice care. I lucked into courtside tickets to December’s Lakers-Sixers game, a bleak showdown between the league’s two worst teams, and also Kobe’s last appearance in his hometown. Philadelphia was winless at the time.
In the Mamba Day video, Phil Jackson says Kobe “relishes being vilified by fans of the other team.” Finally feet away from Bryant, I couldn’t even muster the energy to vilify. Not because I was starstruck, but because it was just sad: it felt wrong that my first time watching Kobe would consist largely of him getting swatted by Sixers scrubs, throwing up fadeaway bricks, and trudging around on dead legs, visibly past his expiration date.
“You’re the GOAT, Kobe,” burst out my friend, inexplicably. I did the same. Minutes later, my friend turned to us and confessed that for most of the last decade, he had loathed this guy. We all agreed, but this did not stop my other friend from shouting, “One more season, Kobe!” which prompted a fleeting smile and head shake from the sad basketball man himself. As the maxim goes: you either die a hero-villain, or you hang around long enough for everyone to just kind of pity you. After seeing the withered reality up close, it is hard for me to hate Kobe as much as he and Nike and their slick, charmless campaign want me to. His highlight reel this year has been bleak. Nobody asked for this. Or this. Or these. Or, most tragically, this:
I did not finagle someone’s dad’s NBA League Pass login so that I could receive constant reminders of my own mortality. This shakes me up. A homicidally competitive guy wakes up one day (and the day after, and the day after, and the day after) in an ailing body, but remains deluded into thinking he still has it; you could see it in the way he winced and berated himself against the Sixers en route to handing them their first win of the season. When, after plenty of failure, he eventually connected on a vintage reverse layup, I shot out of my seat like I’d grown up with his poster on my bedroom wall. Kobe had his haters reverse-heckling him, spewing positive reinforcement, paying our final respects as he made the hardwood his deathbed.
Maybe this runs counter to my previous advice about not letting death soften your criticism of a flawed person. As detailed by my colleague, Kobe has given us reason enough to dislike him, with his behavior on the court, in the courtroom, and beyond. But by the end of this limping victory lap of a season, all my heart wants to say is: Genie, you’re free.