PHILLY’S FAVORITE VILLAIN

Posted by: Jeff McMenamin
02/01/10 2:34 pm EST

Forget the four rings. Forget the MVP award. Forget the 12 straight All-Star appearances. Forget the numerous All-NBA teams he’s made, and forget the slam dunk trophy. In Philadelphia these accomplishments aren’t the reason why there is so much dislike towards its native son Kobe Bryant, it goes much deeper.

In Philadelphia, arguably the toughest sports town on athletes in America, it’s hard enough for the city’s own athletes to get love from the hometown faithful and it’s even more difficult for an athlete from another city to find any love from fans here. It’s uncommon, but it happens in this city more then you would think.

On April 16th, 2003 one of the greatest athletes of all-time entered the First Union Center to play the last game of his career and was met with a standing ovation from the Philly fans in attendance. Michael Jordan who amassed six NBA Championships, five MVP awards, one defensive player of the year award, 14 All-Star appearances, and hundreds of other accomplishments was loved. He didn’t grow up in the Philadelphia area, he beat the Sixers on a regular basis, and he was the definition of a showboat but he was loved.

In his final game of his illustrious career Jordan lost to the Sixers 107-87, but it wasn’t the loss which Jordan will forever remember it was the way in which Philadelphia fans responded to the moment. “This is the final retirement…The Philly people did a great job. They gave me the biggest inspiration, in a sense.” Jordan said, “Obviously, they wanted to see me make a couple of baskets and then come off. That was very, very respectful, and I had a good time.”

Now switch to February 10th, 2002. The NBA-All star game was being held at the First Union Center and Philadelphia was home to the games brightest stars. Fans were thrilled at the opportunity to see the stars showcase their talent on the court, and the city was soaking in the scene. The West beat the East 135-120 and Kobe Bryant won the MVP of the game scoring 31 points to go with five assists and five rebounds. In the award ceremony following the game, Philadelphia fans showered Kobe Bryant in boo’s like they had done for many years before, and this time for the entire country to see. It was a statement. A statement that you’re not the beloved athlete that you think you are and a statement which showed that until you show a little class and respect, then you will never be beloved in this city.

It started in 1996.

Kobe Bryant was finishing his senior season at Lower Merion high school and everybody in the Philadelphia area was buzzing about the freakishly athletic phenom from the Main Line. Everyone knew that soon Kobe Bryant had to choose a college to attend. Many people in the area knew that Kobe’s dad, former Sixer Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant was an assistant coach for La Salle at the time and it would be the obvious choice for Kobe to stay in Philly and try to win the city an NCAA title with the Explorers.

The Big 5 had been missing star athletes like Bryant since the exit of Temple University’s Eddie Jones, and the fraternity was excited at the chance of having Bryant (a local product) join the storied list of players who were loved by the city of Philadelphia during their time here. As Lower Merion’s season came to an end, the city soon found out that this wasn’t the case. Bryant decided to do what few players had done before him and make the jump from high school straight to the NBA. He even stated that if he had decided to go to college instead, then he would have attended Duke rather than be a part of the Big 5 history books. This was the beginning to Philadelphia’s disapproval towards Mr. Bryant.

For the Sixers to draft Kobe Bryant was impossible. They had the number one pick in the draft and getting the wrong pick was not an option. In the 1993 draft they had already selected Shawn Bradley with the number two pick as a risk and the result was catastrophic. Kobe Bryant was young, undeveloped and comparable in athletic ability to many players who had played at the college level already. Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen were three players who had endless potential and the Sixers weren’t about to let one of them pass by.

The Sixers drafted Iverson with the first pick and were happy with the instant impact he had on the team. He won rookie of the year, and dazzled opponents with his famous cross-over dribble. Kobe Bryant was selected with the 13th pick to the Charlotte Hornets but Bryant’s agent stated that he would not play for the Hornets. You’d have to believe that Bryant had a large say in his NBA future, but why wouldn’t you just accept playing for the Hornets? You are 17 years old and you were just selected in the first round of the NBA draft. You’re in a situation which people have spent four years of college to get to and you’re too good for Hornets?

Since Bryant wasn’t willing to sign with the Hornets, they decided to do the next best thing and use Bryant as trade bait. The Hornets dealt Bryant to the Lakers for Vlade Divac and at the time it was considered by many to be a good trade. The Hornets had great production from their forwards Glen Rice and Larry Johnson the year before and with the solid guard play of Kenny Anderson and Dell Curry. It seemed like all the Hornets needed to get to the next level was a solid center in Divac. They finished the season 54-28 which believe it or not only got them the 6th seed in the 1997 playoffs! They were swept by the seasoned New York Knicks 3-0, but Divac still averaged 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game for the season.

Although they fell in the playoffs Divac showed that he was worth the trade of an unproven first round pick. Bryant did not have great success that year, and you could say that he got what was coming to him. Bryant only played 15 minutes a game sitting behind Eddie Jones, and averaged a mere seven points a game that season. The Lakers lost 4-1 in the second round of the playoffs and Bryant had an absolute terrible performance in overtime of game five where he air-balled two straight three-point attempts which would have tied the game in overtime for the Lakers to possibly force double-overtime.

Philadelphian’s were shaking their heads/laughing simultaneously as they watched the local product who opted out of college embarrass himself in front of the whole country. You have to give credit to the man however because although the media was against him, he was able to shake off the insults and prove to everyone that he made the right decision to opt out of college and play in the NBA.

Kobe grew up and grew up quick. In just his second season with the Lakers, Bryant averaged 15 points, three rebounds and two assists a game while only netting 26 minutes per contest. He was also voted into his first all-star game and made his first trip to the Western Conference finals. These were all good things for Bryant’s ego because at the age of only 19 he was doing things which a lot of players could go a whole NBA career without doing.

What made Philadelphian’s angry though was the idea of what could have been if Bryant decided to go to La Salle those two years instead. If he had that kind of production in just his second year in the NBA then just imagine what he could have produced for the Explorers. It would have also been better for Bryant in the long run, because he would have ended up being the number one pick following his sophomore campaign and making more money as the first pick in the 1998 draft then he made his first two years combined in the NBA.

The 1998-99 season for the Lakers was a disappointing one as they were swept by the Spurs 4-0 in the second round of the playoffs. O’Neal and Bryant were poised to not let it happen again. The Lakers won three-straight NBA championships the following three seasons and became one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. Following the titles, Bryant gained a ton of endorsement deals, was compared to Michael Jordan on a daily basis and his ego shot through the roof.

Philadelphian’s for the most part were actually happy with Bryant’s first championship. He was a good teammate, hard worke, and being from the Philadelphia area people were glad to see him win the title. There were only two things on Bryant’s mind however after winning the title, ‘I still have no MVP award or finals MVP award.’ Bryant’s teammate Shaquille O’Neal was stealing his spotlight and in the glitzy city of Los Angeles this did not sit well for Bryant. Bryant averaged 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists the next season only to fall short in MVP voting to Allen Iverson. Bryant averaged 29 points, seven rebounds, and six assists in the finals only to fall short to Shaq’s dominance. He just won two straight NBA championships with one of the greatest centers to ever play the game, but his ego wanted more.

Bryant’s egotistical persona did not go unnoticed in Philadelphia and Bryant only made it worse when he stated that he was, “coming to Philly to cut their (Philadelphia fans) hearts out,” when the Lakers came to town during the 2001 NBA finals for Game 3. From that moment on, the city of Philadelphia held pure hatred for Bryant and any actions he did in the following years would be scrutinized because of it.

In the 2001-02 season, when the Lakers won their third straight championship, you could see things start to unravel in Laker land. Kobe’s assists were down by nearly two from the year before and coincidentally Shaquille O’Neal’s points were down by nearly two as well. Bryant once again did not win MVP or finals MVP and was tired of hearing about the media saying that he’ll never be better than Jordan, just because Jordan never had Shaq.

The next season O’Neal was hurt to start the season recovering from toe surgery and the Lakers were off to a bad start. The team was 11-19 and critics started to really criticize Bryant. The Lakers ended the season losing to the Spurs in the Western Conference semi-finals and to make matters worse, Bryant was accused of raping a Colorado hotel employee in the offseason. As the 2003-04 season began, Bryant and O’Neal were feuding again. Bryant and O’Neal ended up having statistically one of the worst years of their careers. The Lakers were dominated by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA finals and you could sense that this was the end of their reign at the top.

We’ll never know if it was because of Bryant’s egotistical nature that Shaq was traded the following off-season but you have to believe it was a factor. Bryant couldn’t be “the man” with Shaq on the team and instead of trying to fix differences, Bryant only made matters worse. Philadelphian’s tuned into the whole saga while it was developing and were in disbelief at how Bryant could be fighting with a man who helped him win three-straight NBA championships while the city of Philadelphia was starving for their first one since 1983. Add a rape charge to the list and Bryant was hated close to the level of the Dallas Cowboys in the city. When the Lakers lost to the Pistons, Philadelphia was rejoicing. Bryant got what was coming to him and the seasons following proved that.

Bryant wasted three of his prime years to win an NBA championship, due to complete selfishness. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs in the 2004-05 season, and had back-to-back first round exits in the two seasons that followed. During this period, Bryant frequently fought with teammates and overall was just unpleasant to be around. There was his infamous comment to Lakers exec’s to pull the trigger on a trade of Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd and the constant interviews throwing his teammates under the bus.

The water was boiling and Bryant was still without an MVP award. To say that Bryant missed having a dominating force in the paint is an understatement. In the 2007-08 season Bryant got his wish. The Lakers acquired all-star forward Pau Gasol in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol may have looked and played very differently from his former teammate O’Neal, but with Gasol on the court Bryant had no excuses for losing anymore. Led by Bryant, the Lakers finished the season 57-25 for the best record in the Western Conference and Bryant received his very first MVP award in his 12th season in the league. The Lakers lost to the revamped Boston Celtics in six games in the NBA finals, but Bryant had gotten what he wanted and knew that his team was very close to getting to the top once again.

Bryant finally reached the top again last season by beating the Orlando Magic in the NBA finals and was rewarded with one of the few things he was missing through his career, an NBA finals MVP trophy. In the locker room there was nothing but joy, a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the team that helped him get there. Everything is right in Bryant’s life, except for his image in Philadelphia.

No apologies have been given, no respect has been handed out and no remorse will ever be felt for Philadelphia in the mind of Kobe Bryant. Even in times of celebration for Philadelphia, Bryant finds a way to make them just a little bit sour. In game two of the NLCS playoffs for the Phillies against the Dodgers, Bryant’s face showed up on FOX television cameras. A way to get back at Philadelphia fans we’ll never know, but Bryant was sitting in a box with Tommy Lasorda proudly wearing a Dodgers hat.

The Phillies ended up losing the game and when asked about the hat, Bryant responded by saying sinful words, “I’m actually a Mets fan.” At this point, there is no way for Bryant to make amends with Philadelphian’s. He dug his own grave, and will forever be a hated player in this town. On Friday Bryant visited the Wachovia Center to play the Sixers and was greeted in a mixed crowd of boo’s and cheers, including some MVP chants. To be fair the stadium was just about split in half between Lakers and Sixers fans, but regardless Bryant took notice to the cheers. “I got MVP chants here and almost fell over on myself. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?”

Earlier in the day, Bryant had visited Lower Merion high school and met up with a bunch of people who he played with or knew growing up. When Bryant was announced in the starting line-up something happened which had never happened to Bryant before. “Actually, (Friday’s) game was the first game that I ever got goosebumps, when they said, ‘From Lower Merion High School’ … I think because as you get older, you kind of get more and more nostalgic.”

Bryant’s nostalgia towards his youth in Philadelphia sometimes makes you wonder if he actually does care for the city he one time called his home, or maybe he realizes that he doesn’t have many years left in the NBA and moments like this won’t happen too often anymore. For whatever the reason Bryant is getting a little warmer towards Philadelphian’s, but it just seems a bit too late.

There’s no denying his talent and there’s no denying he is not as egotistical as in years past, but for every accomplishment he makes it’s every past incident that Philadelphian’s will remember. If Tom Gola Arena at La Salle held a couple extra banners and memories, Bryant would have been forever loved in this town. If Bryant hadn’t said some harsh comments to Sixers fans and gotten in so many verbal arguments with his teammates, maybe he would have been well respected. He will go down as one of the top ten greatest players in NBA history, but due to his ego he will be a villain in the city of Philadelphia forever.


 
 
 

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