Kobe Bryant’s public life has revolved around a strange dichotomy. On one hand, Bryant seemed destined to be an immensely popular athletic celebrity from the moment he burst onto the national scene.1 On the other, he has always possessed a preternatural inability to make savvy PR moves. No other athlete from the aughts put his foot in his mouth more often than Bryant. His penchant for irritating fans through questionable public statements and actions often made him look like someone who was a bit too desperate for attention. This is a player who can read defenses but has never understood the implications of public actions. It is one reason why, in the twilight of his career, fans and members of the media don’t look upon him more fondly.
The best example of Bryant’s lack of awareness occurred on the eve of the 2001 NBA Finals, when Kobe sent a verbal warning to the Philadelphia 76ers by saying he was “coming to Philly to cut their hearts out.” Taken within the context of those playoffs, Bryant’s statement was somewhat understandable. One of the prevalent media narratives that season was that the 76ers, led by Allen Iverson, were an overachieving team that had displayed immense heart during their run to the Finals. Bryant seemed genuinely tired of hearing about how much ‘heart’ the Sixers possessed,2 but his reaction was loud, unnecessary, and reeked of overly ambitious bravura.
What made the comments especially puzzling is that Bryant hails from Philadelphia (Lower Merion to be exact) and his father played for the 76ers. The series represented something of homecoming for the young star. The smart advice to follow would have been try and win the series, but don’t go out of your way to antagonize the inhabitants of your home city.
Philly fans, who have never been known for their magnanimity, didn’t take kindly to Bryant’s remarks. They booed him heavily during the games that took place in Philly. But the boos fell on deaf ears. Bryant did cut out the Sixers hearts, helping to lead the Lakers to a convincing 4-1 series victory and second consecutive NBA championship.
In the aftermath of that series, the furor over Bryant’s ill-timed comments—couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut?—died down. But things got very interesting the next season, when the NBA All-Star game came to Philadelphia. Bryant, who was in the midst of his prime as a basketball player, was starting for the Western Conference, and to no one’s surprise3 Philly fans had not forgotten the comments he had made the previous June.
NBA All-Star games are fun to watch, but a player doesn’t stand to gain much from playing particularly well. Win the All-Star MVP award and promptly see it have no tangible impact on your career. Heading into the 2002 All-Star game, there were a lot of juicy storylines for fans and members of the media to sink their teeth into. Michael Jordan was back, albeit in a Wizards uniform, and playing in his first All-Star game since 1998. Allen Iverson, the reigning MVP, had a chance to perform in front of his hometown fans. Jason Kidd had been traded to New Jersey and was in the midst of transforming the Nets into one of the best and most exciting NBA teams; he was suiting up for the Eastern Conference for the first time in his career. And yet, from the opening tip Kobe Bryant seemed determined to make that particular game all about himself.
You can’t overstate the questionable nature of Bryant’s mindset. Given his unpopularity within Philadelphia at that time, and given that the crowd wanted to use that All-Star game as an opportunity to celebrate Iverson, who was paying tribute to ex-Sixers star Julius Irving by wearing Irving’s retired No. 6 jersey, Bryant would have been wise to simply fade into the background. But from the moment he took the court, he went on the offensive. He would take 25 shots, two shy of Rick Barry’s record for most shots in an All-Star game. He didn’t make the game’s signature play—that honor went to Tracy McGrady’s self-pass off the backboard. He didn’t provide a nice moment of levity—that was the aging Jordan missing a dunk in the open court. He just made it clear from the get go that he was gunning for the MVP trophy.
With Bryant’s ambitions laid naked with every contested shot he took, the Philly crowd responded with a chorus of boos. In the second-half of the game, jeers rained every time Bryant touched the ball. The game became an inescapable exercise in awkwardness. NBC commentators Marv Albert, Bill Walton, and Steve Jones couldn’t help but remark on the nastiness of the crowd. At one point Walton wondered, in the wonderful aw-shucks/zealous overstatement manner that defined his broadcast career, if the other Western Conference players would stage a freeze out in response to Bryant’s ball-hoggery. The awkwardness culminated when Jim Gray interviewed Bryant on the sideline, in what has to be the most painful in-game interview ever committed to video.
Watching that interview unfold on real time, I half expected Bryant to start crying on national television. Marv Albert put it best, as Marv Albert is so often wont to do, when at the conclusion of the interview he quipped “Jim Gray thoroughly depressing Kobe Bryant.” For what it’s worth, Bryant deserves credit for being so honest and unguarded in the moment. Few athletes in that position would have admitted that their feelings were hurt by a crowd’s response, but Bryant didn’t shy away from the pain. He confronted it head-on, which was a win for on-camera truth-telling but didn’t make the entire experience any less uncomfortable.
Whether or not fans could detect the young star’s hurt feelings, the crowd’s boos never relented. When David Stern awarded Bryant the MVP trophy he so clearly wanted, the palpable hostility in the arena marred the moment in real-time. But in retrospect, Bryant’s trophy acceptance is the perfect signifier of Bryant’s strange career. He’s one of the ten best basketball players ever but will always seem like a tragic figure, a person who desperately wanted to be loved with the same ferocity as his predecessor, MJ, but always made strange, ill-advised decisions that kept this from happening.
I’m sure a lot of people who were watching that game enjoyed seeing Bryant squirm on the sideline as Jim Grey pushed Bryant to explain why everyone in that arena seemed to hate him. There’s a whole industry built upon reveling in the pain of celebrities. But the only emotion I felt at that moment was pity. Yes Kobe brought those boos on himself by 1) saying something stupid the previous summer and 2) actively trying to win the All-Star game MVP, but underneath his chiseled 6’7” frame there’s always seemed to be a lonely kid who just wanted to be liked but never knew how to make it happen.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking about Kobe Bryant a lot and feeling a bit sorry for him. The rise of LeBron James and all the wonderful things he’s accomplished the past few seasons have indirectly made people forget just how great Bryant was. Nowadays the media is quick to compare James to MJ while skipping over Bryant, and that is patently stupid for so many different reasons.
Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve always preferred Bryant to James. It’s a style thing. James is the monster truck who crushes lines of sedans; Bryant is the formula one car who speeds around the track with velocity and agility. I’ll take the Corvette over the Dodge Ram any day of the week.
1. That moment, for many of us, was when he took established pop star Brandy to his senior prom. Bryant wasn’t the first late 90s high schooler to leap straight to the NBA, but Kevin Garnett wasn’t dating celebrities before ever receiving his first NBA paycheck. Kobe’s was a baller move.
2. I find myself being overly sympathetic with Bryant because I too was sick and tired of the ‘Philly has heart’ story. That team’s playoff run was nothing short of magical, but at some point reporters should have found a new way to describe the team.