The sudden and shocking death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant has had an immeasurable impact on the sports world. Former teammates, former adversaries, former coaches and long time fans all poured out their emotions on Sunday afternoon, mourning the loss of somebody they loved, even if they didn’t know him.
For rival fans, like myself, the news was just as shocking…but in a very weird way.
I can only speak for myself, but this was a celebrity death that made me think in a completely different way.
I am a die-hard Sacramento Kings fan (weird I know), and I know I’ve said some negative things about Kobe Bryant over the years. It was the product of what I call “sports hate.”
Sports hate isn’t real hate…at least it shouldn’t be.
Sports hate is the sense of hatred and anger we feel when we’re emotionally impacted in a negative way by an athlete or team. Usually, this is created when an athlete or team dominates the team that you’re emotionally invested in.
As a Kings fan, I was tortured by Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers…so my sports hate was strong.
In my adolescence and let’s be honest into my 20’s, I was a bad fan. I was obnoxious, unrelenting and very mean spirited. That part of my story is a bit embarrassing if I’m being totally honest…but even then there was a level of respect involved in all sports hate.
I’ve always discussed Derek Jeter with my Yankee fan friends and told them that “I don’t hate Jeter…I hate that Jeter wears pinstripes.”
In the long run, that’s why I hated Kobe as a rival fan.
He was Jordan all over again, but this time he was playing on a team I had been raised to hate (born in New England, moved to Sacramento). The sports hate grew rapidly…but again, it was steeped in respect, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
Kobe was simply filthy. He was quite literally poetry in motion when he had a basketball at his disposal.
The level of respect for the athlete and in turn the man grew as time went on, even as I continued to be a “hater.” Time and time again throughout his career and as I aged I witnessed Kobe do things that made me say “wow.”
The 81-point game, the 5 NBA titles and the 60-point final game. I watched them all and could only marvel at the dominance Kobe had on the floor. Even dejected and angry in 2002, I tuned in to the Finals…Kobe and Shaq were must watch TV, love ’em or hate ’em.
This understanding of respect is a cornerstone of my “be better fans” movement. Realizing that the rivalry is still a part of the fun and in the end not serious. Understanding that the hatred isn’t actual hate, but a mix of respect and frustration.
Even the most bitter rivalries are wrought with respect…like the one I grew up a part of between the Red Sox and Yankees. That respect, and my understanding of the difference between sports hate and real hate, is what made Sunday so surreal for me.
I was working at my part time gig at a local Greenville brewery and in the process of wrapping up my shift before sitting down with a beer and enjoying my Sunday afternoon. As I entered our tips into the computer, my friend Trey came out of the kitchen and simply said, “Dude…Kobe Bryant just died.”
My initial and immediate reaction was “No way that’s true…gotta be a hoax, right?”
Then I pulled out my phone and saw all of the texts and notifications. I clicked on every link, scrolled through twitter and realized it was true. Kobe Bryant had in fact died in a helicopter accident.
I was absolutely shocked.
The surreal feeling continued until more news turned it to sadness. After all of the sloppy initial reports, the most heartbreaking news broke. The confirmation that Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, was in fact on board and had also lost her life.
Along with Kobe and Gigi, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa were on board the helicopter. Also on board was Christina Mauser, a K-8 assistant basketball coach and mother, as well as Sarah Chester, her daughter, Payton, and pilot Ara Zobayan.
Nine lives lost in an instant.
An absolute tragedy that has shattered the lives of multiple families.
An event like this makes you think about what is and isn’t important. It makes you forget any trivial feelings you might have about a person based on nothing but sports fandom.
As fans, we’re going to be emotional during games. We’re going to say things in the heat of the moment that aren’t the greatest…but when it’s all said and done, we have to be able to see the differences between our sports hate and reality.
I never actually hated Kobe Bryant…no matter how many times I said I did. I never met the guy, so how would I know how I feel about him personally. I simply hated that he wore purple and gold and absolutely destroyed the Sacramento Kings over and over and over again.
Since he ended his NBA career, Kobe has been a role model for so many. He has been an outstanding father, a champion for women’s basketball, a leader in the community and an ambassador for the game.
Come this August, Kobe will also be a hall of famer.
So, from this rival fan, thank you Kobe…and goodbye legend.