I went to college for four years in L.A., and two of those years followed the Kobe-Shaq divorce. If you recall, that monumental melee made more headlines than Nick & Jessica's breakup (if you can believe that). Outside of L.A., the coverage was excessive. Prime example: there is an actual topic on Wikpedia.com titled "Shaq-Kobe Feud" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaq-Kobe_feud). Living in L.A., the coverage was way beyond over-the-top.
As big as Kobe Bryant had become, Shaq was the NBA's unofficial spokesman of sorts. He embraced this role wholeheartedly, and numerous up-and-coming stars went to Shaq for advice. His endearing personality had won over millions of fans and made him the media's sweetheart. Meanwhile, Kobe remained in the shadows as much as possible given his blossoming stardom. Kobe was and is much more of a private figure, not unlike MJ.
Before long, whispers of "Kobe's selfish" turned into newspaper headlines. It made a lot of sense: Kobe played the shooting guard position, fired up close to 30 shots per game, and had that swagger only before seen by MJ. What was often forgotten during all the drama was that it was Shaq who asked for a trade when Phil's contract was not renewed. Kobe met with the Clippers, but he re-signed with the Lakers before the feud was resolved. The fact of the matter remains: these were two young stars, playing different positions on the same court. They were both arguably the best in the league at their respective positions, and there weren't enough shots to go around. It had all the makings of an envy-fueled feud from the get-go.
I'll be the first to admit Kobe has alienated himself from many fans and parts of the media through his numerous public criticisms of teammates and management. At times, his public statements have been downright immature. However, he was not the only one to blame for the nasty breakup. I don't think it's coincidence that Shaq also feuded with another young star guard when he was in Orlando. Granted, Penny disappeared from the spotlight faster than Shawn Kemp at a child support hearing, but the parallel can still be made. Shaq has never been able to share the spotlight, and probably would have had beef with Dwyane Wade if they didn't play together during the twilight years of Shaq's career.
I still believe Kobe has been the target of unwarranted criticism throughout his career. He is greeted by more "boos" in opposing arenas than anyone else in the league. Why is this? What inspires fans to boo Kobe in, say, Atlanta? He's never faced them in the playoffs, has never shunned the franchise during trade talks, or made negative comments about the city -- all typical reasons for the "boo birds" to come out. It's not even an arguable point -- Kobe is clearly the most hated player in the NBA.
Here's my take on why so many fans hate Kobe Bryant: he reminds people too much of Michael Jordan. The jump shot, the acrobatic dunks, the size (both 6'6"), the knack for making impossible shots in the clutch, and even the way he speaks in interviews. Phil Jackson coached both of these players, and he has said that Kobe is even more competitive than Jordan (if that's possible) and that both players were always the first and last at the gym. Kobe's game and personality are eerily reminiscent of Jordan, and no Jordan fan wants to accept it.
Let's be honest, Jordan did all of this first. Every other superstar has made his own niche, been the first to play the way he plays. Shaq-Wilt and Lebron-Elgin are the only other comparisons that even come close, but those duos played eras apart, so most fans (myself included) weren't really around to recognize the similarities. Jordan was making a comeback with the Wizards when Kobe hit center stage, so it was nearly impossible to avoid the comparison.
In the mid-nineties, Jordan was almost universally recognized as the greatest player ever. He won six championships, all those scoring titles, and revolutionized the game while doing it. He was the first athlete to take endorsements to another level (see Wheaties, Hanes, Gatorade, and his own personal branch of Nike). Ask anyone between the ages of 20 and 40 who their favorite all-time player is, and there is a 50/50 chance they will say His Airness.
Watch Kobe talk, run, jump, shoot, and dunk, and you get the feeling he modeled his entire game after Jordan. It's actually incredibly annoying. Why couldn't he just do his own thing, take all of that God-given ability and channel it into something we have never seen on the basketball court? The answer: if he had, he wouldn't be so successful. Most shooting guards in the league grew up with coaches teaching them to shoot "like Mike," to play defense "like Mike," to chew gum "like Mike." The only difference is that Kobe was the only one who could actually pull it off. I don't blame him one bit -- if you are going to model your game after another player (everyone does), why not model it after the best who ever played?
Recently, I've been starting to see fans' opinions change. A few nights ago, playing AT hated rival Sacramento, chants of "MVP! MVP!" echoed from the rafters as Kobe stepped up to the foul line. Even last year, this would have been unthinkable. As time passes, people are growing to love him. While he is still the most hated player, he is also the most loved player in the league today. Now that he has a formidable supporting cast, his star is shining brighter than ever. Generation Y is replacing "MJ" with "Kobe" as its favorite all-time player, much to the dismay of the Baby Boomers and Generation X.
So how will Kobe be remembered in 20 years, long retired, two or three rings richer (three would be most fitting)? I think there's a very good chance he is mentioned in the same breath as Russell, Bird, Magic, and Jordan. Am I way off-base? What are your thoughts?
Some great Kobe links to read up on:
Remembering the 81-point night -- http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/dailydime?page=dailydime-060123
Why Kobe is the best (and worst) ever -- http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/59791/why_kobe_bryant_is_the_best_and_worst.html
"Kobe Bryant blog day" -- http://hardwoodparoxysm.blogspot.com/2008/02/special-announcement-march-11th-kobe.html
Rewind: why Kobe was more wrong than Shaq -- http://archive.salon.com/news/sports/col//barra/2001/01/31/lakers/?sid=1009362