There is one Kobe Bryant commercial that always sticks out in my mind. The “Love Me or Hate Me” ad produced by Nike that was, to me, the beginning of the Mamba era.
In the spot, we see grainy footage of an exhausted Bryant going through one of his legendary workouts – weights, shots, the whole gambit. Bryant provides the voiceover and proposes that the feelings about him have always been love or hate with no room for something in between.
As Bryant notes in the ad, he is hated for any number of reasons. His hunger. His swagger. His status as a champion. At the end of the commercial, he drops a bombshell to the audience when he observes that his naysayers hate him because he is loved for all the same reasons.
Age and perspective
With some age and perspective, I can admit that I fell into the hater category for most of Bryant’s career. I was riding high on the Tim Duncan-led Spurs’ bandwagon at the time and honestly thought it was a bit unfair that the Lakers had two all-world talents on one team.
I remember desperately wanting Nets’ free agent Jason Kidd to sign with San Antonio back in the summer of 2003, my argument to anyone who would listen being that the Lakers were the only team at the time with two of the top 10 players on one team, and the Spurs needed to match that star power to compete.
Bryant’s commercial was spot on. I did hate his swagger. I loathed his confidence and thought his competitiveness bordered on maniacal. But as I watched Bryant sit down with former teammate Shaquille O’Neal for an NBATV Players’ Only interview over All-Star weekend, I realized that Bryant was the sports hero that fans always wanted.
One moment was particularly telling. During the interview, O’Neal says that Bryant’s talent was the primary reason he did not workout with more conviction in the offseason. Essentially, O’Neal recognized that Bryant was great and would work hard in the offseason, so the big fella could take it easy in the summer. Bryant immediately pounces on this moment and tells Shaq this is precisely the reason he was so pissed at him during their time together in L.A.
It was a contrast in philosophies that distinguished Bryant from O’Neal, and arguably the rest of the NBA
In his book, The Book of Basketball, author Bill Simmons describes O’Neal’s talent and work ethic as the kid in college who could get B’s in class just by falling out of bed and is fine with that. Now, if this kid worked hard, he could be an honour roll student, maybe any valedictorian, but he is cool having a good time and pulling B’s. With Bryant’s work ethic, O’Neal could have been the best ever. But he was comfortable in his own skin and with his place in basketball history.
Bryant was never cool with pulling B’s. Former Lakers’ head coach Phil Jackson, having coached both Bryant and Michael Jordan, described a common trait between the two: each was determined to do what others said could not be done.
Bryant’s will to succeed is apparent throughout the interview. He talks about playing with broken bones, using the doubt after O’Neal’s departure to fuel his championship quest and absolutely, positively wanting nothing else in the world than beat the Boston Celtics for an NBA title.
In an hour’s time, Bryant revealed himself to be the sports hero archetype. He was relentless in pursuit of his greatness. He played hurt, even later in his career, because he understood that fans paid good money to see him perform. As the AAUitization of the NBA started to take hold and players looked to play with their friends, Bryant resisted this trend. In fact, he once admitted that he has no friends, which is the most Mamba quote ever.
In retirement, Bryant seems to have found a balance
There are still more worlds to conquer but he has embraced the over-the-top fictionalized version of himself, as evident in his star turn in the Jalen Rose pilot Jalen Vs. Everybody and the “Kobe System” Nike ads. The scowl, for the most part, has been replaced with a smile and more access into his personal life.
But on the court, he was dogged, unrelenting, determined. It is why current players still flock to him for advice. It is why Stans are willing to drive miles on Christmas to defend his honour. His talent, coupled with a competitive fire that matched only by a few in the game’s history, may never be seen again.
As an avowed Kobe hater, it took me a while to realize this. Perhaps his fans have always known, which is why they love him so.