The Phoenix crowd's Game 7 chant of "Kobe sucks" brought on another round of awkward posturing. Kobe cupped his hand to his ear, Hulk Hogan-style, and held it long enough for TNT's cameras to swivel and zoom; then he nodded sarcastically with his lips pursed for a good 10 seconds. It was supposed to look cocky and defiant but came off as empty petulant theater. When play resumed he launched into an incredible burst of scoring that made me wonder if the greatest talent in the basketball universe is merely an expression of insecurity.
The circumstances surrounding the Phoenix series made Kobe's image-manipulation comically transparent. When word leaked out that Steve Nash had won the MVP again, essentially for being the anti-Kobe, Bryant suddenly transformed his game into a mediocre Nash impression, passing up good shots to get his teammates slightly worse ones. Though the media congratulated him for his selflessness, his real agenda—to prove that he was the snubbed MVP who can do it all—was painfully obvious. Kobe is the only player in the league whose game is most showy when he scores fewer than 30 points.
In the carefully scripted after-school special of Kobe Bryant's career, this playoff series was the part where he "selflessly" "matured" into a "leader." During TV timeouts, he seized his teammates by their faces and shouted intense Jordan-esque lectures directly into their ears, carefully exaggerating his gestures so people in the cheap seats could admire his leadership. In the second half of Game 7, with the Lakers needing a miracle only Kobe could provide, he refused to shoot. Instead, he made a big show of deferring to the role players. To the untrained, this looked like pouting, but you could see him mentally adding another line to his resume: He had taught his teammates not to rely on their superstar in a dire situation.
At some point over the weekend, after Kobe had swished another fadeaway 20-foot turnaround with a defender sitting on his shoulders, my wife wondered aloud whether my hatred might be doing permanent damage to my heart. But I know it's not. Hating an athlete isn't like hating an actual person. It's like hating a character in a novel. My hatred is exceptionally pure and completely contained within the parameters of the game. When Kobe went to the bench with five minutes left and the Suns' lead hovering around 30, I felt an unfamiliar emotion: a twinge of sadness followed by pity. I could feel my Kobe-hatred slipping away, and it made me sad. I will miss it. Everyone left in the playoffs is disturbingly likable. I have nothing to look forward to until next year.
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