Commentary

The problem with hating Kobe

Updated: February 12, 2013, 1:16 PM ET
By Kiese Laymon | ESPN.com

I

hate Kobe Bean Bryant.

I hate his tiny head. I hate his strange hairline. I hate his weak chin. I hate how the guys on "Inside the NBA" never laugh at his tiny head, strange hairline or weak chin.

I hate black mambas.

I hate how hoisting contested jumper after contested jumper and digging a deeper hole for his team is considered "Kobe being Kobe." I hate how no one talks about him having the best coach, the best front line and the best front office in basketball for all but three years of his career. I hate how Bryant rarely offers a meaningful opinion or tweet on violence in black communities, poverty, sexual assault, homophobia or education reform.

I hate that wack song, "K.O.B.E.," he did with Tyra Banks in 2000.

I hate that Bryant changed his number to No. 24. I hate that No. 24 is four times No. 6 and one more than No. 23. I hate my friends for prodding me not to hate Bryant. I hate Bryant's friends for being Bryant's friends even though I don't know if Bryant's friends exist.

I hate purple and yellow jellybeans.

I hate how Bryant, like most of us, seems to distrust everyone at his job. I hate how Bryant doesn't care if I hate him or not. More than anything, I hate how, between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, Bryant made me want to stop hating him forever.

W

hen Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison joined the Lakers, bona fide Kobe haters smiled. We figured that Bryant and Howard wouldn't get along, that Bryant would go out of his way to prove to his new teammates, and mostly Howard, that the Lakers were his team. We didn't figure Mike Brown would be fired before really getting a chance to coach the team. And none of us counted on the Lakers making the goofiest coaching decision since St. John's awesome assistant Mike Dunlap was named coach of the Bobcats.

[+] EnlargeBryant & Wade
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant has made a living on contested shots.

We now know that Kobe Bean Bryant's first choice of Mike D'Antoni was ether for his Lakers team. Howard's free throw shooting, the lack of a bench, injuries, Pau Gasol's discontent, and porous transition defense all contributed to the team being an embarrassment. Despite averaging nearly 30 points a game and a career-high field goal percentage for the first half of the season, Bryant's team is struggling because he has not done what it takes to effectively lead his team. He simply won't change.

Instead of utilizing and motivating a front line that every guard in the league would die for, Bryant played most of the first half of the season as if his supporting cast were the Washington Generals.

It's not that Bryant shoots too much. It's not even that he shoots too many bad shots. The problem is that he shoots too many bad shots given the quality and character of his teammates. Even if he makes a decent percentage of those shots, watching Kobe be Kobe, isn't going to make Gasol, Howard, Nash or Metta World Peace better.

Real question: Does anyone in that Lakers locker room have the gravitas or pedigree to stop Kobe from being Kobe?

Real answer: Hell no.

There are five coaches on earth over the past decade who could really coach Bryant: Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski. Whenever Bryant has an unchecked influence on the attitude, players and plays of his team, his team will not win as much as it should. Boxers aren't built to lead; they're built to box. Bryant needs to be coached.

He simply does not have the constitution to lead a team, or change himself by himself.

T

he athletes we love and hate cultivate their work in a hyper-mediated spectacle that often renders their work, their skills, their likeness, their successes and their failures ours. ESPN, fantasy leagues and social media bring us closer to our players, but that spectacular one-sided relationship obscures the fact that, while players we love and hate are the best in the world at their jobs, most of us have no idea what it's like to be the best in the world at anything. Look at the way we shamelessly discuss athletes in columns on ESPN, or comment sections, or Twitter and Facebook. And of course, these incredible athletes read our disrespectful comments and hateful columns.

Think about it.

Personally, I'm a decent writer, a diligent reader and a committed teacher, but I can't imagine a person who can't teach, read or write a lick, attempting to publicly hate me for my teaching, reading and writing while calling themselves names like BoosUrDaddy or KieseHater#42. That's the kind of thing that would make a nonviolent man like me want to reach for my slingshot. I was an OK Division III basketball player and a bad assistant coach of an underachieving Division III basketball team. Shouldn't those two facts alone prevent me from ever fixing my mouth to say one hateful, disrespectful or critical word about someone who plays the game I love as well as Bryant?

Of course, it should. But nope, it won't.

I will hate Kobe Bean Bryant because I'm encouraged to and because, frankly, thanks to social media, ESPN and anonymous comment sections everywhere, hating is a hustle. Hating is the new black. It's one of the six things I'm good at. Plus, Bryant made it, and I didn't. Bryant has mansions, and I don't. Bryant plays the sport of basketball like an impeccably trained spoiled boxer. I played the game like a timid, short-armed role player whose uniform never quite fit right.

Therefore, I hate him.

F

or the last week in January, Bryant, the self-proclaimed best one-on-one player ever, passed the ball. A lot. By week's end, he had 48 assists in four games. He didn't force contested shots, averaging 11 shot attempts a game and shooting 58 percent from the field. He helped Howard, Gasol and World Peace rebound, averaging eight boards, up from his five a game.

In the fourth quarter of the Lakers' game against the Suns, with 7:56 left and the Suns making their comeback, Bryant re-entered the game. On the next offensive possession, he broke the defense down, and instead of shooting a contested jumper in the paint, a shot he'd taken 10,000 times, he hit World Peace for a 3 that Metta missed.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Noah Graham/NBAE /Getty ImagesKobe Bryant's pass to Earl Clark resulted in an assist, one of 14 in a win against the Thunder.

Thirty seconds later, the defense collapsed on Kobe Bryant and he hit World Peace for another 3.

World Peace missed again.

Kobe didn't sulk or shake his head. He ran back on defense and gave World Peace a nod to keep shooting. Kobe wouldn't successfully pass the ball again for the rest of the game. He turned the ball over twice, went 2-for-7 in the final six minutes, and the Lakers blew a seven-point lead and lost by six. But they didn't lose because Kobe shot an air ball, forced a few contested shots and missed a lefty layup that could have tied the game; they lost because Howard, the entirety of their interior defense, left the game after reinjuring his shoulder with seven minutes to go.

I watched the next Lakers game against Minnesota to see Kobe revert to being Kobe. I wanted to see him come out grinning and gunning. I wanted to watch his body language show his coach, his teammates, his haters that he took no responsibility for the team's failure. I wanted everything I saw in that game to corroborate my grounded assumption that Kobe Bean Bryant is a 34-year-old, superbly talented, highly committed, amazingly skilled, detestable athlete who is afraid of change.

What I saw was a man I don't know, a man I should be ashamed to say I hate. I saw a worker at the top of his craft, a worker committed to the hard, messy work of trusting in something larger than himself. I saw a man trying to love his teammates while showing and telling the world that he could be different. In that game, Kobe shot eight fewer shots than his average. He made only four shots, passed the ball and seemed legitimately joyful when teammates made and missed shots.

And the Lakers won. 

Whether Kobe's commitment to this change lasts or not, I don't know. I know that it's easier to talk about change and hate than it is to actually change. I also know that the greatest scorer of his generation, and the most selfish player many of us have ever seen, tried to fundamentally change the last week of January. In a nation obsessed with the rhetoric of change and transformation, Kobe, one of the greatest athletic workers ever, not only publicly trusted and faced his teammates; he publicly trusted and faced himself.

Update No. 1: After calling Howard out for not playing through pain, Bryant scored 27 points and had zero assists and four turnovers in a loss to the Celtics.

Update No. 2: After getting roughed up by King James and Dwyane Wade, Kobe took to Twitter to chastise and educate one of his followers for calling something he didn't like "gay." He tweeted, "Just letting you know … that using 'your gay' as a way to put someone down ain't ok! … delete that out ur vocab." This comes 22 months after he was fined $100,000 for calling a referee a gay slur.

Update No. 3: I hate Kobe for reminding me that he is a real person who I will never, ever know. I hate him for inadvertently reminding me, as James Baldwin said, the only real change is a moral change, and for showing me that real change is real work that will never, ever get easier.