It's a Sunday night in late November, and the man to my left is booing Kobe Bryant. Loudly. We're at a game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Kobe has starred for 20 years, and where he has hung five championship banners in the rafters.
On this booing man's lap is a midnight blue envelope, inside of which is Kobe's printed retirement letter, given at the door to all fans in attendance tonight. I have one too, and so does my brother, who I begged to come here with me. It's the Lakers' only home game during my short trip home, and I had long been desperate to go, nursing a gut feeling that Kobe would retire at the end of the season, despite all his evasive rhetoric. I wanted to be sure I saw him in person one last time.
We bought tickets that morning for less than $70 each, evidence of how thoroughly unimpressive this year's team promised to be. Some time after I entered my credit card number into the Lakers ticket exchange but before we were handed our midnight blue envelopes just inside the Staples Center doors, Kobe proved me right and announced he would retire at the season's end.
And so we sat and watched as Kobe shot an abysmal 4-for-20 from the field in a 107-103 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Kobe was bad. The Lakers were bad. All the while, the man to my left — a Lakers fan in Lakers clothing — kept up his enthusiastic booing.
It wasn't always this way.
When I was 8, I begged my parents to buy me a huge whiteboard for my room. Once it was mounted on my wall, I took a yellow Expo marker and blocked off half the writing surface for a Lakers tracker. I meticulously documented every game — who it was against, whether it was at home or away, at what time it tipped off, on which network — as well as the score of the last game and the Lakers' overall record. For years, I painstakingly updated the whole thing after each game.
At 11, I bought my first jersey — a throwback styled after the erstwhile Minneapolis Lakers and emblazoned with the number 8 and the name Bryant. It was the summer after the Lakers fell apart in the 2004 NBA Finals, and I wanted to show my support for the team's remaining superstar. It was at least three sizes too big, but when it arrived in the mail after weeks of waiting, I was ecstatic.
At 13, I watched in awe as Kobe dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, and when he pounded his chest and flashed his Lakers uniform after hitting a key buzzer-beater in the playoffs, it gave me chills. The next year, when he publicly demanded a trade, my heart broke.
At 17, the same year my high school basketball teammates jokingly dubbed me "Kimobe" after I made a couple of clutch baskets, my dad snagged us tickets to Game 7 of the Finals against the hated Boston Celtics as an early birthday gift. The Lakers were trailing late in the game, and Kobe's trademark clutchness had apparently left him as he bricked shot after shot. But a rebound here, a key assist there, and we pulled out the win — and there was Kobe, dancing in the confetti falling in front of us.
At 18, on the day I moved into my freshman dorm room at college in a faraway state, I proudly donned a Lakers T-shirt. When I was homesick at school, I'd stay up late to stream games on my laptop in the dark. New friends joked that they could predict my mood based on the Lakers' most recent game: A win meant measured contentment, because of course I expected the Lakers to win, while a loss meant extreme grumpiness. I signed up for Twitter as a class requirement, and my timeline was quickly cluttered by musings on the state of the team — and Kobe in particular.
I grew up in Los Angeles during Shaq and Kobe's three-peat years of 2000, 2001, and 2002, so maybe this was all inevitable. Regardless, Kobe Bryant suiting up in the purple and gold has probably been the most consistent thing in my life; I can't think of anything else that has stayed the same for 20 of my 23 years. He was never my team crush (that was Trevor Ariza and then Shannon Brown), nor was he the untainted hero (that was always Derek Fisher, future Knicks turmoil notwithstanding). For me, Kobe just was the Lakers. When I turned on the TV, I was watching for him; when I booted up my NBA video games, I always assumed his animated persona.
But that doesn't mean I don't recognize his complicated legacy. Yes, he's a five-time champion and the best two-guard not named Michael Jordan to ever play the game. But any man who refers to himself as a HeroVillain and boasts that his unforgiving mindset should make people hate him displays an astonishing amount of ego and stubbornness — and while it may win championships and respect, it won't make many friends. He sold the Lakers out in 2007 and arguably crippled the team to line his pockets during later contract negotiations. He may or may not have ruined several free agent-recruiting meetings.
And then there's his Colorado rape trial, which has been largely forgotten in the decade since it unfolded. Kobe has always maintained the encounter was consensual and that his sin was adultery, not assault. At the time, I was too young to really understand what Kobe was being accused of, but I know better now. And as a young woman in this world, I have no good explanation for how I continue to lionize a man who was accused of committing a heinous crime. (The case was eventually dropped and a civil suit settled.) It's probably something I'll be reckoning with long after Kobe's jersey hangs in the rafters at Staples Center.
But tonight, at 23, I'll turn on the TV and watch Kobe don the purple and gold one final time. I'll watch him drain vintage fadeaway jumpers and brick three-pointers and get to the paint but not quite elevate like he used to. I'll watch him grimace and grin and, when it's all over, wave to the crowd and pound his chest. I'll watch this dismal Lakers season end, likely with an unfathomably bad 16-66 record, comfortably the worst in Lakers history. And I'll probably cry when it's over.
And then, on Thursday, I'll wake up with bags under my eyes and greet the new and unfamiliar Kobe-less era of Lakers basketball. And it'll be a new and unfamiliar era in my life too. Because I just can't imagine the Lakers without Kobe Bryant. He is the Lakers. And in my life, he always has been.