One of the most important things I’ll attempt to impart to you as a father is to love your enemies.
“But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.” – Matthew 5:44
That’s a serious charge. It’s near impossible to live out in your daily life, but there is an arena where it just might be possible- Sports.
I write this next part with my jaw endearingly clenched, my nostrils affectionately flaring, and my stomach turning with fondness.
I love Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant is the enemy. He has been since the Charlotte Hornets agreed to ship the high school star to the Los Angeles Lakers immediately after selecting him in the 1996 NBA Draft. He was picked two spots ahead of Steve Nash. As a family, we love Steve Nash in a “no one has commanded us to do it even though we REALLY don’t want to” kind of way. You see, we’re long-suffering Suns fans.
Kobe Bryant’s mere presence on the Lakers made him an enemy, but it was his debut against the Suns on November 17th, 1996 that cemented it. An 18-year old Kobe Bryant scored 16 points in 14 minutes off the bench in a 14-point Lakers win. I knew then that I’d be hating Kobe Bryant for a very long time.
In the four years after the Lakers acquired Kobe Bryant, they went 17-4 against the Suns en route to a dominating playoff series win in 2000, and their first championship. It was the first of three championships in a row. In the middle of that championship run, Kobe Bryant revealed himself to not only be the enemy, but the king of the enemy forces.
- December 28, 2000- Kobe scored 38 in a 37 point Lakers win.
- February 7, 2001- Kobe hits the game-winning shot in an 85-83 win.
- April 10, 2001- Kobe has a season-high 6 steals in 106-80 Lakers win.
The Phoenix Suns only beat the Lakers once in the 2000-2001 season. Kobe Bryant didn’t play in that game.
By 2002 each Lakers game was circled in red on the calendar. You planned for those days, and hoped for the temporary satisfaction of a win, while fearing what the consequences of a win might mean the next time around. In 2002-2003, Kobe Bryant averaged 33.5 points per contest veryus Phoenix, and the Lakers won three of the four matches. The final win of that season came on a Kobe Bryant game winning shot in overtime.
Suns fans had to chew on that loss for 30 weeks until they had the opportunity to face the Lakers again, and on November 1, 2003, Kobe redeemed what was one of his worst performances against the Suns in over a year when he broke a 97-97 tie with just over a minute left by calmly sinking two free throws. The Lakers won again, 103-99.
The Suns went 1-3 against the Lakers in 2003-2004. The only win? You guessed it. Kobe Bryant didn’t play.
But alas, the tide can only stay out for so long. In 2004, Steve Nash, who was drafted two spots behind Kobe, returned to Phoenix, and the Suns began an era of dominance over their foes to the west. In 2004-2005 Phoenix was 4-0 against the Lakers. In the 2005-2006 regular season they held a 3-1 advantage, and went into the first round of the playoffs with an opportunity to completely exorcise themselves of an era of Laker dominance.
The series started nearly 10 years ago, on April 23, 2006. I remember it like it was yesterday. Probably because the series took place in the days leading up to my wedding. I was feeling as confident as ever. The love of my life was getting ready to say I do, and my greatest personal sports villain was getting ready for a long summer off.
But your greatest adversaries in life rarely go down without a fight.
The Lakers quickly took a 2-1 lead in the series, and then with their backs against the wall, the Suns held a two-point lead with possession of the ball and under 10 seconds left in game 4. That’s when Kobe did this:
I was a mess. Kobe Bryant was personally trying to ruin my wedding. How was I supposed to love an enemy that would go to this great a length to destroy what should have been the happiest time of my life?
The Suns did their part to get me through the week, winning not once, but twice in the days before my nuptials- even overcoming Kobe’s 50 point performance in game 6.
On the morning of May 6, 2006, I looked into the eyes of the love of my life and said “I do.” At the reception I sat with loved ones and we talked, laughed, danced and celebrated the day. Still, I knew that for many in the room, the memory of whether this truly was a special day hinged on the Suns ability to withstand Kobe Bryant coming off back-to-back losses with the eyes of the world on him.
That afternoon my nerves were shot, and not for the usual wedding night reasons. That’s when Kobe Bryant came through with the greatest wedding present I could ever hope to receive. He totally didn’t show up to play.
Just two days after scoring 50 points on 35 shots, Kobe Bryant refused to put the ball up, shooting just 16 times in 43 minutes. The Suns won by 30. The Lakers had been eliminated. My honeymoon started 12 hours before we ever boarded the plane.
The Suns dominated the Lakers in 2006-2007, going 7-1 when Kobe Bryant was on the court, and casting them aside in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. It was at that time when that the Suns began to show signs of self-destruction, and I learned that Kobe Bryant was as much of a vulture, willing to pick the bones clean off a fresh carcass, as he was a snake.
Over the next 3 years the Lakers went 9-3 against the Suns in the regular season, and an improbable playoff run in 2010 set up a Western Conference Finals meeting between the two foes. That’s when Kobe proved once and for all that he wasn’t just a seasonal adversary- he was instead THE all-time thorn in my favorite team’s side. In the Lakers’ four wins, he had performances of 40 points (Game 1), a season-high 13 assists (Game 2), a 30 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist near triple-double (Game 5), and a 24-point second half (Game 6).
Oh, and of course, how can anyone forget how Game 5 ended:
Even when Kobe Bryant fails he succeeds.
How are you supposed to love a guy like that?
Over the years, the rivalry has devolved into two awful teams fighting their way to the bottom of the barrel, but fans still showed up to boo whenever the Black Mamba’s old ligaments were healthy enough to allow him to take the court. He’s managed to be the victorious villain often enough in recent years for his retirement to still matter.
- March 22, 2011- Scores 42 in a triple overtime win, including the shot that sealed the win.
- January 10, 2012- Scores 48 including two late demoralizing dunks in a dominant 4th quarter.
- February 12, 2013- Has the worst game of his career since emerging as a starter, shooting 1-8 and only scoring 4 points in 36 minutes. His 9 assists help the Lakers win 91-85 anyway.
The end has been bittersweet. Kobe rarely takes the floor against Phoenix, but the Suns have four consecutive wins against the Lakers when he does manage to lace up. The fact that those wins are even memorable in what has been the worst era of Suns basketball in the franchise’s history is exactly why “loving” Kobe Bryant, even subversively, is the message of this letter.
The sweet just isn’t as sweet without the sour. And Kobe, well, he’s just about as sour as it gets.
Without an enemy, at least in the realm of sports fandom, it’s harder to quantify the value of any given success. Sure, there’s victory- but what were you victorious over? Surely the little pig that built his house with bricks could count his domicile’s ability to provide shelter as a point of pride, but withstanding the breath of the Big Bad Wolf is what gave that home its true value. Sure, it’s great to be a sports fan, but how much value to the particular experience of being a Suns fan did victories over Kobe Bryant bring over the last two decades?
As he takes the court for the final time tonight, I tip my hat to our very own Big Bad Wolf…
Your are loved, Kobe Bryant. You and all 4008 of your career turnovers, your 14,453 missed shots, and the 50+ losses you have limped through in your final season, are loved.
I lovingly hope you lose again tonight.
As for you, my kids, I hope you find yourselves as great a sports enemy as I’ve had all these years- and may you have more moments of sweet than sour.