As another NBA season is now behind us and Kobe Bryant has picked up his fifth title, his place in history is up for debate. Bryant, who was once the clear cut poster boy for the post-Jordan era of the NBA, is now the most polarizing figure in all of sports. Millions of people love the Lakers star, and millions of people hate him, but every basketball fan has an opinion on Kobe -- and they are all pretty passionate about those opinions. It has gotten to the point that when someone asks whether you are a Kobe fan, it almost defines you as a person. It’s like asking if you are a Democrat or a Republican. While trying to debate Bryant’s place among NBA greats, I was amazed by the amount of Bryant haters. The number of haters was so great that I didn't even find it fair to throw them all into one category. So, just to be fair, I broke the Kobe Bryant haters up into groups so that they are easier to identify.
When you ask most Kobe Haters (we will call them KH for short) to talk about Kobe, the first thing you will hear is “He’s not Michael Jordan.” What exactly does that mean? Jordan is regarded as the greatest basketball player who ever lived -- is not being better than him a bad thing? If I brought a 7’6” man into someone's living room, would the response be that he wasn't the tallest man to ever live? I’m guessing the thinking would be closer to "I don’t know if he is the tallest person to ever live, but he damn sure is tall -- and if he isn’t the tallest person ever, he sure is close." Saying that Bryant is no MJ really isn't saying anything. It's just ignoring who he is because of who he is not.
Then there is the group of haters who always seem to think that Kobe is the second best player in the league. To let this group tell it, Bryant has been the second best player in the NBA for over a decade, but the number one player changes every other year. Somehow, the number one player always seems to fall down the list but Kobe just never moves up. There was the "he’s not better than Iverson" debate that lasted for a couple of years, then there was the "he’s not better than Tracy McGrady" campaign, which was followed by the "he’s not better than Steve Nash" era. Hell, even Chris Paul got his name mentioned for a year as the one guy in the NBA who was better than Kobe. This is the fan who has become a die-hard Cavs fan out of nowhere. He is the same guy who years ago said that if Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady ever played with the best center in the NBA, then they, too, would win titles. His favorite line used to be "Kobe will never win without Shaq," but he never seems to remember saying any of that. He often has a lot to say in the regular season, but not so much in the playoffs.
This brings us to the group that we will just call “Mr. Unrealistic-Casual fan.” This is the guy who watches about ten to fifteen basketball games a year, typically at a bar where he isn't even paying attention and by the time the game is over, he is too drunk to even tell you what happened. He is the guy who yells out “All I know is that when Shaq left, Kobe couldn't even get out of the first round.” It’s hard to really argue with him, because he is right: that is all he knows. He never mentions that Kobe lost in the first round to a Suns team that had All Star Shawn Marion as the third option, while the Lakers' third leading scorer was Brian Cook.
The next type of KH is “Mr. I-know-basketball-more-than-you.” He is typically the guy who played basketball in High School and may have even walked on at a D2 school. He now coaches kids' basketball so he thinks he has this ability to understand the game that no one else does, and can see things that you can't see and no one else can explain. He is the guy who says that Kobe just doesn't make others better. He makes arguments like "You have to take Steve Nash over Kobe," or, "No one wants to play with Kobe because he’s too selfish." When you ask him to explain why Nash has played on some of the most talented teams in the NBA over the last decade and hasn't won anything, he really can’t answer you. He says that Kobe doesn't make anyone better, but he can’t explain why three years ago no one wanted Pau Gasol, but now everyone seems to think that he is the best thing since sliced bread. Three years ago, no GM in his right mind would have traded Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion for Gasol and Odom, but for some reason, this guy insists that Nash gets more out of his teammates than Kobe. This guy usually has a long list of players with whom he would rather start a team (Nash, Paul, LeBron, Dirk etc.), all of whom have never won anything even in college, but he can’t explain why because you just wouldn't understand. When you ask him to name Bryant’s weakness, he gets frustrated trying to tell you, so he just tells you that you don’t understand the game like he does. Sounds pretty stupid, but who are you to argue? He does coach sixth graders. The more you listen to him, the more it is evident that his hate for Kobe is deeply rooted. He secretly blames star players like Kobe for the reason his hoop dreams never panned out. If the star player on his college team had just passed more, then the coach could have seen all of his talent. He will never tell anyone out loud, but in his heart he thinks that he could have been better than Kobe if he had been allowed to shoot more.
The hardest guy to argue with is the history guy. He typically watches a lot of basketball and knows his stuff. He doesn't like Kobe, but he respects his game. As painful as it is for him to say, he will even admit that Kobe is the best player in the NBA today. He considers Kobe the best player of his generation, but he will quickly tell you that he is not one of the best ever. He will say that Kobe is somewhere between the fifteenth to twentieth best player of all time. The problem with history guy is that he can never name fifteen players better than Kobe. He often starts reeling off names like Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Wilt. After spiting out four names with ease, he throws out two more, and then starts saying ridiculous things like Dr. J and Walt Frazier. In a last second effort to reach ten players, he says George Mikan, even though not only has he never seen Mikan play, but his father hasn't, either. He can never name the seven to eight players who are superior to Kobe, but he swears they exist; he just can never think of them right now. And while naming the greatest players of all time, he often changes the criteria for being great. He says Bill Russell has to be top five because it's all about rings, then goes on to name a handful of players whom he thinks are better than Kobe, yet whose combined ring totals are less than Kobe's individual ring total. He always wants to point out that Kobe played with Shaq, but never wants to mention that Jordan, Bird, and Magic never won a title without another Hall of Fame player on their teams. History guy knows his basketball. The only thing he doesn’t know is why Kobe isn’t one of the top players of all time.
The most interesting hater of all is hypocrite guy. He says one thing, but his hate for Kobe says another. He says that he hates Kobe because he wants to be like Mike, but he says this while wearing a number 23 Cavs jersey. He says that he can’t stand Kobe because he’s so arrogant, but his favorite player is a 25-year-old who calls himself King and speaks in the third person -- all while inviting us to “witness his greatness.” He is always complaining that today’s players only care about money and don’t care about getting better, but for some reason he hates the player who works the hardest in the NBA. He is often screaming that Kobe can’t win a title on his own in one breath, and in the second breath screaming that LeBron needs help. He says things like "Today’s players have no respect for the players of the past," then turns around and says that Kobe steals the moves of past players. He hates Kobe so much that he doesn't even realize that the stuff he says makes no sense. He calls every Kobe fan he knows every time Kobe has a bad game to say “I told you so,” but he is the hardest guy to find every time Kobe has a great game or hits a game-winning shot. He always says that he can’t stand Kobe because he wants to be like Jordan, even though every Saturday this fan hits the park in his Jordan shoes, Jordan socks, Jordan shorts, and Jordan shirt, and never forgets his Jordan bag full of Gatorade. Hypocrite guy doesn't realize that everyone, including himself, wants to be like Jordan. The only difference is that Kobe is the only one willing to put in the same work that Mike did.
Last but not least is “Ms. I-can’t-stand-him.” This is the female who, if you didn't know any better, you would be sure used to date Bryant. She often says that she can’t stand him with so much passion that you can tell it goes deeper than basketball. She has a long list of reasons why she hates him, and not one of them has anything to do with basketball. She doesn't even have a favorite basketball team; she just roots for whichever team is playing the Lakers. If you watched her throughout the playoffs you would think she had been a Suns, Thunder, and Celtics fan her whole life. There is really no need to argue with her because all she ever says is “I can’t stand him." And all you can really do is wonder if she knows him.
Does every super star in sports have his/her group of haters? Yes. But hating Kobe has gone to a different level -- it has taken on an art form. While millions of Americans will admit to being Kobe haters, there are several hundreds of thousands of fans out there who don’t even know that they are Kobe haters. The saying goes, “It’s lonely at the top,” or, as Jay-Z once said, “You don’t even know me and you mad. How it feel to be a hater, now I know exactly how it feels to be a Laker."
*Follow Mark Grey on Twitter @greyAmark