Since this is the 12th time the Celtics have met the Lakers in the NBA finals, we pretty much know what to expect.
We’re going to get some tedious, clichéd bet between the mayors of Los Angeles and Boston, who of course are both diehard sports fans. Don’t let the fact that one doesn’t have an NFL franchise and the other thinks Jason Varitek is an ionic placekicker fool you. (That Mayor Menino will offer up a gallon of Legal Sea Food chowder in exchange for an ounce of medicinal marijuana, one can only hope.) We’ll get the usual hackneyed columns from the sports press about how the two cities don’t like each other. If we’re lucky maybe one of those “Boston has the Cabots and Lodges, LA has the Crips and the Bloods. Edge: Boston” gems in the Globe, provided that Dan Shaughnessy doesn’t feel like working too hard. We’ll get the usual sideshow of celebrity puff pieces, historical retrospectives of the rivalry and more Bird-Magic than you’ll see in a year on the stages of the Vegas Strip.
But for me, there’s one thing above all others this series is offering up. And I thank God and David Stern for it (though that’s probably redundant). This series is giving us something Boston fans have been sorely lacking of late: a true hated enemy. But this series has it.
Kobe Bryant: The ideal nemesis. The pluperfect sports jerk. The Ultimate Villain.
I promise you I’m not just trying to talk some attention-whoring smack here. This isn’t some lame-ass, obvious attempt to answer back to Ted Green of the LA Times for trying to mine the comedy gold that was the near murder of Paul Pierce. Having weak cheese like that be published is the perfect punishment to him for having written it in the first place. No, I mean this sincerely, honestly, and from the bottom of my heart: Kobe Bryant is the biggest, most insufferable dink in all of professional sports.
And we’ve had more than our share of villains over the years. A rogue’s gallery of miserable, unlikable misanthropes, vicious, head-hunting psychopaths and cheating, mentally-defective scumbags. From Ulf Samuelsson to Bill Laimbeer. Jack Tatum to Albert Belle. Thurman Munson to Alex Rodriguez. And every Dennis Rodman, Joey Porter, Joba Chamberlain and Mickey Rivers in between. But you could harvest body parts from every one of them and sew them together into one detestable package, reanimate it, teach it to jump shoot, and you’d end up with Kobe Bryant. He’s Frankentool.
Because say what you want about the guys I mentioned above … and believe me, I have … at least, they understood they were bad guys. Everyone of them accepted that they were despicable human beings and sort of embraced it. As if they realized that all great dramas from your Shakespearean tragedies to Disney movies to episodes of “The A-Team,” need villains, and they were willing to play the part. And in a twisted way there’s something admirable about that. Hell, even somebody as loathsome as A-Rod has come to embrace his own Wrestling Heelishness. Any man who chases hookers, lets himself be photographed kissing his mirror, and has a painting of himself as a centaur has abandoned all pretense of being one of the Good Guys.
But not so Kobe. He’s still acting as if he’s NOT one of the most unlikable men on the planet. There’s a story about LBJ when he was president where he asks one of his advisors why the public doesn’t like him more. “Because, Mr. President,” the aide is supposed to have said, “you’re not very likable.” Kobe could use a guy like that guy in his entourage, but I’m not holding my breath.
Where do you begin to list the examples of Bryant’s legendary jerkery? You begin with the obvious. For all the character flaws of all the Boston sports villains over the years, to our knowledge not one of them sexually assaulted women. We can forgive the occasional beanball or a hockey stick to the knee, but I opt to draw the line on this side of attacking female hotel employees. Call me a Puritan.
And nothing defined what this guy is all about like the aftermath of the rape allegations that set an NBA record for insincerity and unctuousness that will never be broken. That moment when he professed his love to his wife Vanessa — who at the time was half woman/half diamond ring — in the privacy of a massive international press conference, made Tiger Woods' phony-baloney plea for forgiveness look like he was committing hara kari. I defy anyone reading this to look his wife or girlfriend in the eye and say “You are the beat of my heart” and keep a straight face. An actor in a Zales commercial would puke on himself at treacle like that. But Kobe Bryant actually thinks we bought it.
Look, nobody is liked by everybody. I’m sure there are even people who watch Betty White on TV and say “That old bag thinks she’s so great…” But everyone is liked by somebody. Except for Kobe. I’m convinced that there’s not a man, woman or child on Earth who doesn’t despise the man.
Think about it. His teammates? Not a chance. Keep in mind, this is a guy who won THREE STRAIGHT NBA CHAMPIONSHIPS, then insisted the Lakers break up the team. Why? Because he felt they were getting old? Because the dynasty would end like the '80s Celtics unless they got an infusion of young talent? No, because he didn’t like Shaquille O’Neal. That would be the same Shaq who’s universally regarded as one of the truly funny, articulate, engaging personalities in the game. And who went on to prove he still had it in him by winning a championship in Miami.
Do you suppose Bryant is well-liked in the Lakers organization? Especially after he complained back in '07 that he wanted to be traded unless the team surrounded him with more talent? Talent like, say, that 7-foot, 300-pound, first-ballot Hall of Fame center he forced them to trade two years prior? I’d imagine that half of Phil Jackson’s Zen meditation time is spent trying to find the inner peace to keep from dope slapping his little prima ballerina.
The NBA? Puh-leeze. The assault case against him was a nightmare the Association has barely woken up from. And every call/non-call of Bryant’s career that hasn’t gone his way has caused him to do the Brad Wesley death scene from “Road House.” Compared to Kobe’s whining, Rasheed Wallace has the stoicism of Nelson Mandela.
Nor can I imagine Bryant is truly beloved by his own fan base. I have no doubt Lakers fans appreciate that he’s an unparalleled talent. I’d have to be an idiot to argue that he’s not one of the two best players in the game. But that doesn’t mean they love him. For all the packaging, image-handling and marketing the NBA does, basketball is still a street game. And I have a hard time believing the guys who grow up playing schoolyard ball embrace the privileged son of an NBA player who was named after a steak, has the middle name “Bean,” grew up in Italy and tries to keep it real by recording a rap song (“K.O.B.E.”) he co-wrote with Tyra Banks. Kobe’s short lived hip-hop career not only made “Shaq Diesel” sound like Run-DMC by comparison, but it proved that he spells “rapper” with one “p” too many.
Look, I know I’m going to be accused of severe homerism here. And it’s a charge I’m usually guilty of. I’m sure someone will say that if next month Kobe Bryant got traded to the Celtics, I’d learn to love him. And I did do that with former villains like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. But not this guy. I would rather be the middleman in "The Human Centipede" than ever root for this smarmy, insincere, egomaniacal, phony, self-important, me-first alleged sex offender.
I will give him his due: He’s a hell of a basketball player and could win this series practically by himself if the Celtics don’t bring their 'A' game every night. But win or lose, Kobe will still be a jerk.