Kobe is back. After a warm up against the Toronto Raptors tonight he will be expectantly awaiting the Suns arrival on Tuesday with a fire to win burning in his dark heart. After all, Kobe Bryant hates the Suns. But for me, the feeling isn't mutual.
We all know that Kobe is a bit of a bitter, resentful shell of a human being. And he's made no secret of professing his true feelings towards the Suns organization.
"I don’t like them," Bryant said of the Suns. "Plain and simple, I do not like them. They used to whip us pretty good and used to let us know about it, and I. Will. Not. Forget. That."
Even though most of the guys from that team are gone?
"I. Don’t. Care," Bryant said. "I won’t let it go."
But with his return from a major injury at the age of 35 the number of games for Bryant to work out his pent up frustration is dwindling. And as the Suns chance to lay another beating on the Lakers approaches my mind wandered to the last days of another former star who had a prominent position in my rooting interests years ago.
Michael Jordan was one of the first professional athletes that made my blood boil. I had never bought into the Air Jordan mania that swept the nation and was irritated by the bandwagon nature of people that sprouted up wearing Bulls gear when the team started winning championships. The Suns were my team and, after the trade for Barkley, the Bulls were not only the enemy, but the main obstacle in my team's championship aspirations. His ascendance to anathema was complete after the 1993 NBA Finals. I was 14 and this marked the first time I really felt heartbroken watching sports. In fact, I'm not sure if anything else has ever hurt that much...
I celebrated the news that he would leave the NBA to pursue a career in baseball, placing the Suns at the front of a group of favorites to win the title in his absence. I even chortled at his futility on the Barons as he failed spectacularly and squandered an opportunity (much like the Suns) he never deserved in the first place.
Then, one day while watching Jordan as his career waned for the Wizards I found myself cheering for him. Time had passed and he was no longer the hated enemy. Time had healed the wounds. Jordan was no longer the face of what had crushed my dreams. And he was about to be gone.
I had missed the beauty of the trees because of the forest fire in my heart. Instead of having a collection of memories of the milestones and epic individual performances Jordan had racked up I had mostly vague recollections obfuscated by umbrage and animosity.
And I realized that I had only hurt myself.
I had blocked myself from watching the sport I love being played at the highest level possible. I was the one missing out. Not Jordan. He had been busy ruling the basketball landscape, winning championships and receiving adulation from swarms of fans... while I festered. It was like I was drinking poison and hoping he died.
I haven't done that with Kobe. It's not a situation where I go to games wearing a Bryant jersey, but I do watch and appreciate his unique ability.
I don't watch sports to canonize the players on a personal level, but I have grown to appreciate their greatness on the field. And I like to watch the greatest players excel at their individual sports, even if I wouldn't let them babysit my kids... or even want to have a beer with them for that matter.
I can, and do, separate what players do.
Tiger Woods - His off the course indiscretions have been detailed to the nth degree, but I just don't care much about his sex life. I'm also not the moral police and infidelity just happens to be pretty damn prevalent as it turns out. Tiger is the reason I'm a fan of golf and the reason why I took up the sport.
Tom Brady - Is it perceived hubris (perhaps deserved) or just jealousy that turn people off of Brady? After all, he's possibly the best ever at the highest profile position in all of sports... plus he's married to a supermodel and lives in a castle.
Barry Bonds - He was a generally unpleasant guy turned cheater, but some of my favorite baseball memories ever are running to a tv set to watch him take at bats. Sure, I could pretty much care less about him now that he can't bust the cover off a baseball anymore, but I have a sneaking suspicion that at least a couple of you thought baseball was a little more exciting back when the players were jacked.
LeBron James - Dude has received an unimaginable amount of vitriol for the solecism of his puppet show platform to announce his free agency "Decision." His second biggest "character flaw" seems to be that he's not as big of an a**hole as Kobe or MJ. His third? Maybe that he was actually able to realize he might need help to achieve his goals and went about getting it? Damn him for doing what I tell my kids to do.
Obviously Bryant isn't exactly a peach off the court, either.
But what would sports be without these transcendent players? And doesn't their greatness just magnify these flaws anyways? Is anybody outraged that Carlos Almanzar was taking PED's? These great, polarizing players make sports compelling.
I need Kobe Bryant. Kobe is part of what makes sports so great. He is the villain. He is the Joker to the Phoenix Suns Batman.
And right now he's the last unicorn in the league. The Spurs don't really do it for me. I was actually cheering for them in the Finals last year. I respect their organization. What other rivalries are there for the Suns right now?
Who do you look forward to watching? What games do you have circled on the schedule?
How many playoff series have been as great as the first rounder against LA in the 2006 playoffs where Tim Thomas hit that three to help the Suns overcome 50 from Bryant in game six before watching Kobe quit oh his teammates in a game seven blow out?
And when Kobe does eventually hang up that ugly ass Lakers jersey (but not before crippling his team's chances to compete by taking up cap space with a contract he can't possible need financially - big ups on that one), the league will be worse for it.
I'm actually ready for the Suns' next Kobe Bryant to come along now. Another player I can have that much fun cheering against.
So welcome back, Kobe. I don't hate you... sports need people like you (yes, that's a sideways insult). I hope you know I missed you... and I hope that makes you hate the Suns even more.