History will fondly remember the dramatic 60 points Kobe Bryant scored in his final game, a flurry of 50 shots from all over the court. History will replay his deep jumper from the right side, down one, 30 seconds remaining, to put the Lakers up for good. History will rewind regularly, like Jordan’s upturned hands vs. Portland, like young LeBron’s destruction of the Pistons, this impossibly glowing night for “Bean” on his way out the door. America stood and cheered.
What history will forget, and probably already has, is how Kobe used to be viewed. On Wednesday night the sports world rose from their sofas and applauded, #MambaDay trended on Twitter. Teammates, opponents, rivals, all threw a warm bear hug around one of the coldest, ruthless competitors we’ve ever seen. Kobe was heartless, merciless, void of empathy once upon a time. On Wednesday, he smiled and waved and cooed to the crowd.
He had his own hashtag with a cartoon snake.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? Did anyone notice it was happening?
Phil Jackson may be confusingly running the Knicks from a tiki hut in Nepal but he was the only one who noted how incredible this reaction was. In the Lakers pregame tribute video, while everyone else sent him kisses and hearts, Phil said, “Kobe, this transformation this year from your Black Mamba phase, killing everything in sight with one bite, has been remarkable. You’ve become the ambassador of basketball. Congratulations.”
And maybe beyond his legendary career resume of championships (5), NBA Finals appearances (7), All-Defensive First-Team (9), and All-NBA First-Team (11), his greatest achievement will have been turning the public perception of him 180 degrees.
This week Nike unveiled a commercial where players, mascots and fans of opposing teams sing “I Hate You” while Kobe leads the orchestra. It perfectly encapsulates this bizarre “through the looking glass” persona he has now cultivated. Kobe is loved for being hated because he enjoys being loved for being hated. He’s a cartoon villain now, like Gargamel from the Smurfs or the Iron Sheik.
Allen Iverson was a pretty good example of an NBA villain. Unapologetic (like Kobe), clashed with coaches (like Kobe), and salty toward criticism (like Kobe). But A.I. had no farewell tour, no piece of the parquet from the Celtics, no framed high school jersey delivered at midcourt. He was swept aside by the force of the NBA, grasping for a final paycheck in Turkey. And The Answer was a Hall of Famer and a cultural icon just like Kobe. Granted, Iverson didn’t nab a fistful of rings nor one of the ten best players ever.
But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, and he once had the ultimate farewell tour too. The Big Skyhook was given a Rolls-Royce, a yacht and an afghan rug in his final season at varying stops. Kareem was very much like Kobe, aloof, hard to read, an intellectual introvert more apt to read Hemingway than engage in a team card game. But unlike Kobe he never put the white hat on, never played the cool old guy playfully exasperated by the young pups in the league. Kareem was a brackish competitor to the end, rough edges, usually frowning, always pushed outside of basketball’s in-crowd. He was never given the coaching job he sought within the league. He was never comfortable as an ambassador of the game. He is a socially-conscious writer, a TIME magazine columnist exploring social issues, a thoughtful but careful man hardened by the racially combustible 1960s.
Thirteen years ago Kobe was an American pariah. Arrested for sexual assault, his major endorsers dropped him, and his jersey sales plummeted. The Lakers were dysfunctional between their two most recent golden eras. Kobe was sniping with Shaq (tell him how his a** tastes), driving teammates away, and so incorrigible Phil walked away and wrote a book lambasting him. Jackson told ownership he wouldn’t coach Kobe. “I’ve had it with this kid. He won’t listen to anyone.” This led to his Black Mamba identity, a lone predator, coiled at all times, ready to strike anything that moved.
Not exactly Space Jam 2.
But as Kobe saw his basketball mortality start to fade he jab-stepped. He’d become extremely self-aware of his legacy. He began to soften, smile after losses, admit he had no friends, cop to driving teammates away, and embrace the critiques he once was defensive about. He publicly became bros with Shaq. This season he joked about a career of never passing the ball. Not long ago he would’ve looked you in the eye and asked rhetorically, “Why should I pass? I’m the best option.”
Last year he allowed Gotham Chopra (Deepak’s son) inside his personal walls to film “Kobe Bryant’s Muse.” This was a project the player actually commissioned. I interviewed Chopra about the film. “Kobe told me, ‘Everyone has an opinion on me… let me let you in and give you my point of view. This has to be stuff you can’t Google.'” Part of this project was because Bryant realized a chance to tell his story for a final time at the end of this chapter. “He’s very self-aware,” Chopra told me. “He’s got a long life ahead of him, and most of that will be spent off the court.”
It worked. The All-Star Game in Toronto was a Kobe Love-Fest. He’s been saluted at every road venue. On his final night, the most unlikely display of affection came from the city that hated him most. Basketball writer Ethan Skolnick was in Boston covering the Heat-Celtics game on Wednesday night. He tweeted, “I’m at a sports bar across from the TD Garden in Boston, and they’re standing on bar stools cheering Kobe.”
Did you ever think you’d see the day Celtics fans were going gaga over Kobe? Everyone went home happy on Mamba Day. Who would’ve thought?
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.