With the Los Angeles Lakers visiting the Boston Celtics tonight, you might have thought it’d be a brief respite from the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour. After all, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is the biggest in the sport, and the last time these two teams faced off with something on the line—the 2010 NBA Finals—Bryant’s Lakers beat the Celtics. There is no fanbase more hostile to Kobe this side of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Not all Celtics fans hate Kobe, but none of them like him. Instead of a sustained hatefest, however, there was a strange combination of loving and loathing that didn’t seem quite appropriate for this rivalry.
Before the game, the Celtics presented Kobe with a piece of the famous Boston parquet floor:
There were reports of a large number of Lakers fans in attendance, which is usually true of most places when the Lakers travel, but not Boston. When Kobe was introduced before the game, the response was a surprisingly unenthusiastic mixture of cheers and boos:
As the game wore on and Kobe shot his now-standard 5-18, a pattern emerged. When Kobe touched the ball he was booed, and when he made shots he was cheered. And then, with the Lakers up two late in a game they would eventually win 112-104, this happened:
Shortly afterwards, those cheers that were too loud to be from just Lakers fans morphed into a full-blown “KOBE!” chant:
If the Lakers weren’t the second-worst team in the league, things would be different of course. If the Lakers were 25-5 and Kobe an MVP candidate, he wouldn’t have gotten a solitary cheer. But that’s why the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour has been so discomforting, especially its Boston stop.
The Lakers have kicked everybody’s ass since the NBA started. Here is a crazy stat: the Lakers are going to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season for the first time in their history. It will only be the eighth time they’ve missed the playoffs in 68 seasons. And for his part, Kobe has spent the past 20 seasons whooping everybody not named Tim Duncan, a shit-eating grin plastered on his face while doing so.
When Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan have their farewell tours, they’ll be met with cheers of appreciation for what they’ve meant to the NBA and how long they’ve sustained an incredibly high level of play. Even the smack-talking Kevin Garnett has settled into a role as a beloved elder statesman. But Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have always been different. Kobe Bryant has always gleefully stoked the hatred opposing fans have for him, feeding off the negative energy to mercilessly devour his opponents.
Bryant and the Lakers have suffered not a temporary dip in form, but a seemingly-permanent fall from grace. Since tearing his Achilles near the end of the 2012-13 season, Kobe has been a sub-replacement level player. For the first time in forever the Lakers don’t have a superstar on the roster, and with Jerry Buss’s passing they’re no longer one of the smartest franchises in the league. They’ve managed to hold off for so long the fate that befell the Celtics in the 1990s—falling back to the pack and becoming just another NBA team—but they can’t for much longer.
As long as I’ve been watching basketball, the Lakers have been the Empire and Kobe their Darth Vader, something inescapably evil to orient against. And so to watch him go out like this, head proudly held high but almost too feeble to be worth booing, is deeply unsettling.
Photo via AP