Basketball against black

What do I know now I didn’t know then? That Kobe Bryant, inhumanly talented on the court, was merely human off it.

If you consider yourself a Phoenix Suns fan for the first decade of this century – the best decade in Suns’ history – you will understand what I am about to say about Kobe Bryant, who died last week at 41.

God, I hated his guts.

Mine was a loathing extended outside the hardwood, a revulsion extending to the man personally. 

It took into account a single night in a hotel room in Colorado; Bryant’s imperious air and the way he carried himself; and what Bryant himself called the “Mamba Mentality,” which struck me for years as an ironically perfect metaphor: superstar as snake.

God, was I wrong.

I see now, in the aftermath of a Sunday morning helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas. 

I have read all the fawning obituaries, watched all the television tearjerkers, and pondered why we allow our passions for sports to obliterate logic. 

What do I know now I didn’t know then? That Kobe Bryant, inhumanly talented on the court, was merely human off it.

Only two people ever knew with certainty what happened in that room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera on the night of June 30, 2003. 

Now one of those people is dead and the other, the accuser, took an undisclosed sum of cash not to testify in court. Whatever happened – be it sexual assault or adultery – in retrospect, it looks to be the lone blemish on Bryant’s otherwise exemplary public profile. 

Thus, it should be kept in perspective and not held against him for eternity. 

Because a single night aside, Kobe Bryant appears to have been an excellent husband to Vanessa, his wife of 18 years, and a doting father to his four daughters, Natalia, Bianka, Capri and 13-year-old Gianna, who perished in the same crash.

Then there’s everything else, Bryant’s life on the court, where he served for a decade as a villain for Suns’ fans. I’m talking about 2000 to 2010, when Kobe ranked right beside the San Antonio Spurs as the Suns’ most reviled rival. 

Kobe’s Lakers won the NBA championship in 2000, with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal steamrolling through a meek Suns team, 4-1.

The teams’ next playoff confrontation, the 2006 first round, was epic – and epically satisfying. The Suns went down 3-1 in that series. We won Game 5 at home, then flew to LA and whipped the Lakers in Game 6 – despite Kobe scoring 50 and Raja Bell, our designated Mamba stopper, suspended for a flagrant takedown of Bryant. The Suns jumped to a 17-point lead in Game 7 and sent the Lakers home.

We also eliminated Kobe in the first round the following year, 4-1. Kobe got his revenge in 2010, though. That was peak Kobe, the last of his five NBA titles, with Shaq gone and Bryant a slithering, scoring nightmare. 

It was also the last great Suns team, the final ride for Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, and for my fandom of a team since ruined by incompetent ownership.

I was in the stands for Game 6, the series ender. What do I recall of that nightmare? A long Kobe three-pointer right before halftime and a series of buckets late in the third quarter to slash the Suns’ throats.

 I screamed at anyone in purple and gold that night, doubly so for anyone in a Bryant jersey. I never hated him more than that night.

Kobe Bryant was the greatest athlete I ever detested, and I despised him for reasons that now seem insufficient and dumb. Dead at 41, he turned out to be superman in a basketball jersey, and superlative off the court – in ways that matter far, far more.