When the Phoenix Suns embarrassed Kobe Bryant's Lakers this weekend in what should have been a classic Game 7, it marked the beginning of a kind of spiritual vacation for me. I detest Kobe with such bilious overpowering fervor that, when he's playing well, I have trouble doing much else with my life: an incapacitating dark sludge floods my soul. Over the last few weeks—as Kobe threw dirty elbows, made smug post-game comments, and beat the lovable Suns on a couple of irritatingly great last-second shots—my Kobe-hatred swelled to alarmingly high levels. With the Suns' victory, however, I felt the black tide begin to recede. Its absence still feels strange.
I don't hate Kobe for petty reasons: for his talent, for instance, which is beyond dispute and often gorgeous to watch, or because he sold out Shaq, or because he's an adulterer, or because his face looks like a weasel. I can forgive all of that. I don't even hate him because the referees surround him with a sacred halo of gentle touching (he was once so coddled in a playoff game that Ralph Nader had to start agitpropping about it), or because he's skewed the self-perceptions of pickup ball-hogs across the nation, or even because he makes close to my yearly salary every time he scores a basket. This is all irritating but peripheral. The true source of my rage is much, much deeper: I hate Kobe Bryant's rotten and derivative soul.
Since Michael Jordan's final title in 1998, NBA superstars have suffered mightily from what Harold Bloom termed "anxiety of influence." The Jordan myth—a morality play about how dedication, respect for the game, and loving your parents makes you the undisputed greatest person in the world—has stifled an entire generation of great players. But, as Jordan's most talented immediate successor, Kobe has been uniquely warped. He's plagiarized MJ's game so expertly that, in many ways, he's ahead of the master's curve—Kobe is stronger than the 27-year-old Jordan and has a deadlier outside shot. But for all his miraculous skills, Kobe is painfully bad at mythmaking. Since he's a Jordan-like talent, Kobe clearly thinks that he's entitled to the Jordan mythology, but he doesn't have any of Jordan's charisma or imagination. As melodramatic and managed as Jordan's career was, there was some authentic core—it was original and seemed to mean something. Kobe exists entirely within quotation marks.
Jordan was a master of pantomime. He built his empire largely on iconic celebratory gestures: the tongue-wag, the splay-legged fist pump, the impish "Even I marvel at my own divinity" shrug. Kobe's dramatic gestures are all either borrowed or embarrassing. After his game-winner over the Suns in Game 4, Kobe held his fist frozen in front of him exactly like MJ used to. But when he got clotheslined by Raja Bell in the next game, there was no script to work from: You could almost see him trying to remember if Come Fly With Me had any footage of Jordan getting horse-collared by Joe Dumars. Kobe finally improvised with a sassy hand-gesture shuffle. He wiped a pile of imaginary dirt off of his shoulder for a while, then added a schoolmarm finger waggle while making the least convincing tough-guy face I've ever seen. It was like a high-school production of West Side Story.
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.