A basketball fan who grew up rooting against Kobe Bryant reflects on what the late Lakers legend meant to him and his fandom
By Stan Sy | Art by Tricia Guevara
“Kobe Bryant passes away at the age of age 41…”
How do you even begin to process or make sense of these words?
For most of us, it’s already difficult enough waking up on a Monday morning and preparing yourself to face Manila traffic. So imagine those being the first words you see on your phone or on TV as you’re having your breakfast and coffee.
One of my friends alluded to Kobe “being with one of his daughters” in our group chat, which seemed so out-of-nowhere since his message came in at 4:30 a.m. And there was no preceding conversation about basketball at all. When I went down for breakfast, my sister broke the news that Kobe Bryant was gone. I froze and all I could say was, “Putang ina.”
I grew up in a generation of basketball fans who loved the gun-slingers, the tireless scorers who could explode for 30-plus points on any given night, the guys who could create any shot against the trickiest defenses, the cold-blooded shooters who could win with one shot in the game’s final seconds. Kobe Bryant was most definitely a gun-slinger, maybe one of the last of the kind. For better or worse, playing like Kobe was mostly associated with scoring buckets on end and never stopping until it was physically impossible to keep going.
Fans like me, whether as kids or as adults, developed the habit of throwing things—trash, tiny balls, the laundry—into whatever receptacle and yelling, “KOBE!” I thought it was just something kids at my school did, until I went to UP and realized even other students from outside my alma mater did it, too. Then, I thought it was a Filipino thing until I realized that Jason Mendoza, the lovable idiot played by Filipino-Canadian Manny Jacinto on NBC’s “The Good Place” yelled, “BORTLES!” before throwing a Molotov cocktail in reference to “KOBE!” Turns out, everyone did it.
When I first started watching basketball, I was actually a fan of the Shaq and Kobe Lakers. They were superheroes on the court and ran roughshod over the NBA during their three-peat from 2000-02. But soon after that, I grew tired of the Lakers and how dominant they appeared compared to everyone else. I latched on to a new favorite, Yao Ming and his Houston Rockets. I took Yao’s side in the Shaq/Yao rivalry and began to hate the Lakers in the process.
I distinctly remember being in my room on a December morning in 2003—it must have been over the Christmas break. I was watching the Lakers host the Denver Nuggets live on TV and both teams were tied at 99 with 2.5 seconds remaining. Kobe popped off a Karl Malone screen and got the ball off the inbound. He pivoted and made his way to the top of the key, trying to lose his defender, Jon Barry. He stopped right at the top of the key, pumped fake, got Barry to fly past him, and fired straight away. “THE LAKERS WIIIIIIIIN!” yelled the announcer. Halfway around the world, 13-year-old me yelled, “PUTANG INAAAAAA!” prompting my angry dad to burst into my room wondering what had happened and why I’d blurted out the dirtiest of expletives. Little did I know that would be the first of many frustrating NBA moments I’d be handed at the hands of the Black Mamba.
I became a fan of the Lakers’ long-standing rivals, the Boston Celtics, when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were traded there in 2007. That really justified my disdain for the Lakers and everything they were about. By then, Kobe was the guy on the Lakers. It was his team and he embodied everything I’d come to hate about the Lakers. Seeing Kobe get outmatched by that 2008 Celtics team remains one of my favorite sports memories. At that point, I was following Garnett’s career the closest as he’d overtaken Yao as my favorite NBA player.
At the time, KG had a huge monkey on his back, with his Playoff history being littered by first-round losses—one of them being at the hands of Kobe and the Lakers—and a 2004 Western Conference Finals run that ended with a brutal loss to… Kobe and the Lakers. Watching Garnett finally win his own NBA Championship against, well, Kobe and the Lakers was incredibly sweet. It was one of those moments so indelibly marked in my memory that I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time: working out at the gym with my two best friends from high school, Ryan and Charles—both of whom are Lakers fans.
But it hurt just as much to watch the losses. I cried watching KG walk off the court after that Western Finals in 2004 when his Timberwolves couldn’t fight off the Shaq and Kobe tag team, which also had an aging Gary Payton and a 41-year-old Karl Malone on its roster. I was so deflated watching Kobe and Pau Gasol run circles around an injury-depleted Rockets in Game 7 of the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals because that year was probably Yao’s last (and best) shot at getting to the Western Finals. Somehow, Kobe (and the injury bug) got in the way again.
Kobe’s greatness was always magnified to another level. Whether you rooted for or against him, there was always a heightened level of emotion in watching him play. That type of charisma is incredibly rare in sports. It should also explain why Kobe was the guy for Los Angeles and Lakers fans all around the world. The Ringer’s Chris Ryan said on “The Bill Simmons Podcast” today that the vilification of Kobe during his sexual assault case in 2004 made Lakers fans embrace him even more and adopt an us-versus-them mentality against everyone in the NBA. He wasn’t just their guy. “He was their messiah,” Ryan exclaimed.
When Kobe won, I never heard the end of it from my two best friends, who took the greatest joy out of spamming our group chat with “KOBEEEEEEE” and all its different variations—mostly with the number of E’s added to the end. Even when the Celtics won in 2008, they couldn’t let me have that win entirely because Gasol had just joined the team in February of that year, never mind that Kobe had the best season of his life and was the goddamn MVP. When Kobe and the Lakers returned the favor and beat the Celtics in a seven-game Finals in 2010, well: “KOBEEEEEEEEEEEE” ad nauseam, much to my disdain. Kobe was their greatest sports hero. He was my greatest sports villain.
That pure emotion is what makes sports great. We spend so much time following our heroes and even their adversaries, getting sucked in by their narrative. We watch them grow, then fall, and if we’re lucky, we watch them rise up again in redemption. We get so invested in our favorite athletes and teams that a simple win or loss could make or break our day. Without these emotions, basketball would just be five dudes trying to throw a ball into some hoops.
Today is an incredibly devastating day. There’s just no way to dance around it. “Sometimes, things don’t make sense,” Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told reporters following the news of Bryant’s passing. “And there’s times you should feel, you just feel sad.” Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate Kobe Bryant and his extraordinary basketball career—to the point of even buying myself Kobe’s rookie jersey when I saw it at an Adidas outlet three years ago. I thought I’d feel dirty if I’d ever bought Kobe merch, but I realized that all the sports hate towards Kobe throughout the years was born not just out of fear. It was born out of respect.
“I think everybody right now is a Lakers fan. We’re all Lakers today,” Rivers continued. And that’s exactly how the entire basketball community all around the world feels. In death, Kobe evokes a different emotion: grief. Regardless of which fanbase you’re a part of, or even what generation you grew up in, Kobe Bryant’s death hurts. Everyone wishes it didn’t have to end for Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna because they both had so much more to do, so much more to give.
We won’t be able to see Kobe get to finish that children’s podcast he was working on or make more Academy Award-winning films, or even coach Gianna all the way to the WNBA. It fucking sucks that we won’t even get to see him get inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Kobe was very much a part of our basketball experience, even in retirement, as a content creator. His last tweet was just from yesterday, as he congratulated LeBron James on passing him for third all-time in NBA scoring. He was with us. And just like that, he isn’t.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, a longtime fan of the Celtics, called this the saddest day in the NBA on his podcast. And he’s right. That’s because whether we loved or hated Kobe Bean Bryant, there’s no denying his greatness and how he evoked such pure emotions from when we first heard of him to the day he went for 60 against Utah in his final NBA game.
Sean Grande, the longtime radio announcer of the Celtics fans said today, “As Celtics fans, we didn’t think Kobe Bryant could break our hearts one more time. We were wrong.”
Rest in power, Kobe.
You are and always will be my favorite sports villain.
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