Just wanted to pass along a piece I wrote for ESPN’s TrueHoop section about the potential schism over the next several years between two very distinct sets of Laker fans: The ones who care first and foremost about the franchise and the ones who care first and foremost about Kobe Bryant. These divided priorities among many fans have never been a secret, but also never terribly problematic so long as the Lakers remained a powerhouse. But in its current state, with the franchise desperately in need of a smart, methodical rebuild and Kobe openly impatient towards anything short of “win now,” the stakes may be on the verge of rising for those taking a side.
You can read the article by clicking here, and below is an excerpt:
Kobe Bryant is anything but an ordinary superstar, and Kobe zealots are a breed different than I’ve seen in my entire life watching and covering sports.
The Mamba is regarded by this contingency as half basketball god, half political prisoner. An indestructible force of nature, yet encased in bubble wrap to protect him from the slings and arrows of jealous haters consumed with denying the Mamba’s greatness. True Kobe-ites will gladly step into traffic to protect him from an oncoming car, but feel disappointment it wasn’t actually a bus.
In fairness to Kobe’s vigilantes, getting his back has often felt like getting hit by a Greyhound. Bryant’s career has been shaped by persistent PR turbulence. Feuds with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. (Too much) blame for the threepeat core’s dissolution. Colorado. The 2007 offseason, in which he demanded a trade to Pluto. His relentlessly demanding relationship with teammates. An-court persona that would raise Hannibal Lector’s eyebrows. Throw in the reductive — and idiotic — idea that Kobe’s first three titles on “Shaq’s teams” somehow counted less, and the guy has spent considerable time between the crosshairs. Bryant may be more popular than polarizing these days, but likability will never be his calling card.
Of course, Kobe Bryant is also an indisputable icon, an athlete destined to go down as one of basketball’s all-time greats, and a lifer for one of sports’ most storied franchises. The fervent didn’t choose him by accident. Even Lakers fans who don’t worship at the altar take considerable pride knowing Kobe is one of their own.
However, that sect pledges its loyalty to the franchise first, and these fans are hyper-aware of where life currently stands for the Lakers. The future has been mortgaged bone-dry after surrendering multiple picks to acquire Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and to jettison the contracts of Derek Fisher and Luke Walton. The new CBA was designed to prevent teams like the Lakers from reloading through economic superiority.
Painful as these losses have been, another underwhelming season might be necessary to create a sustainable bright future. For the first time in eons, the Lakers are in position to build from the ground up, and whatever critical designs in place can’t be altered to placate a 36-year-old player with over 54,000 career minutes (playoffs included) coming off consecutive significant injuries. Even if that player happens to be Kobe Bryant.