I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant. Let me explain.
That may sound like an incredibly insensitive thing to write less than a day after the NBA legend’s passing at the age of 41. But I mean it as the compliment.
In fact, I mean it as the highest form of praise. When it comes to competition, that’s what you should say about a worthy adversary.
They should get under your skin. They should drive you nuts. They should make you curse and spit and throw fits of anger.
That means they’re doing things right. They’re standing in the way of the goal; they’re preventing your team from winning. And they’re doing it exceptionally well, time after time after time.
Bryant filled that role for 20 years, antagonizing Nuggets fans with the way he played basketball. He was tremendously skilled, able to do things on a court that only a handful of players in the history of the NBA could do. But more importantly, he was also unbelievably competitive, driven to win in a way that was almost maniacal.
He was a tenacious worker, often going through his own workouts in the wee hours of the morning, well before his teammates were even out of bed. And he was a bulldog on the floor, unwilling to cede an inch to anyone, no matter the situation.
As a result, it’s no surprise that Bryant finished his 20-year career as one of the most-accomplished players to ever lace up sneakers in the Association. His name is littered throughout the league’s record books, securing his place in history in terms of individual accomplishments. And his teams captured five championships, putting him in rarified air in terms of winning.
That combination of talent, tenaciousness and competitive drive made him beloved in Los Angeles and by Lakers fans everywhere, but it also made him public enemy No. 1 in almost every other arena in the country. Bryant was the bad guy who would roll into town, squelch the home team’s dreams and ride off in the sunset.
For Nuggets fans, the 2009 Western Conference Finals were a prime example of hopes being dashed by the league’s most-lethal opponent. During the six-game series, in which the Lakers won 4-2, Denver didn’t have an answer for Bryant.
In every game, he led Los Angeles in scoring, averaging 34.0 points per outing. But it wasn’t just the fact that he lit up the scoreboard; it was when and how Bryant did so that broke the Nuggets will.
Time after time, Denver threw their best at the Lakers star. Often, he had players draped all over him. Repeatedly, Dahntay Jones had a hand within an inch or two of Bryant’s face during a shot attempt. At times, the Nuggets even tried to get physical, borderline dirty, in an effort to slow the future Hall of Famer.
None of it worked. Bryant didn’t back down. He just kept making shots, especially at crucial moments. In the Lakers first three victories, Los Angeles trailed heading into the fourth quarter. Then, Bryant would carry them to a win, becoming an unstoppable force down the stretch.
Eventually, it was enough for the Nuggets to wave the white flag. They’d given the Lakers their best shot, only to come up short in heartbreaking fashion because of one player.
By game six, Denver had lost its will to compete. Bryant had broken them. The Nuggets lost by 27 points on their home court, clearly convinced they had zero chance of beating the Lakers in back-to-back games to advance to the NBA Finals.
Of course, the Nuggets weren’t the lone victims of Bryant’s greatness. For two decades, it happened across the league.
He was better than anyone on the other team. He also wanted to win more than they did. So, he usually came out on top.
That’s a hard pill for opposing fans to swallow. It certainly was in Denver.
As good as that Nuggets team was, they didn’t have anyone as talented as Kobe; they didn’t have a player who could take over the game when it mattered most. And as strong-willed as that squad was, with leaders and tough guys all over the roster, they couldn’t stare down Bryant in a battle; Denver’s stars blinked first.
At the time, that wasn’t much fun to witness. In fact, it was heartbreaking. And it was annoying to listen to listen to Nuggets fans chant “Ko-Be!” in Pepsi Center.
But in hindsight, it was an honor to watch it all happen. It was a treat to see greatness on the biggest stage. Even in defeat, it was cool to witness something special.
It also made the quest much more fun. Having a worthy adversary, someone who would be difficult to defeat, made the goal worthwhile. And if the Nuggets had been able to pull it off, it would’ve made the accomplishment more meaningful.
Unfortunately, my favorite team never got the best of Bryant, at least not in a game or series that mattered. He was the king of the hill and Denver was unable to knock him off.
It was frustrating. It was infuriating. It was maddening. It was heartbreaking. It was every other form of disappointment imaginable.
It was why I couldn’t stand Kobe Bryant.
But it’s also why I respected the heck out of him as a player. He made going to the arena a treat, for players, coaches, the media and fans.
He was the ultimate competitor. And it sure was fun to watch my team compete against him.