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Tuesday, February 24, 2004
 



HATIN' KOBE? NAH. CAN'T REALLY FEEL FOR A GHOST


Eric Neel is the WB's resident Laker lover. We decided this might be a good time to take his temperature on Kobe -- still a big fan, or is he beginning to sour on the troubled superstar? Or worse?

Turns out, Neel is, in fact, feeling lousy. But about himself, because he doesn't feel anything about Kobe at all. And almost anything -- even some serious hatin' -- would be better than that.

The thrill is gone . . . | From Eric Neel

The hell of it is, I don't feel much of anything about Kobe.

I've been a Lakers fan since Gail Goodrich ran the point and Zeke from Cabin Creek played the two spot, and I've got nothing.

Showtime was my religion. Magic was my avatar. And still I'm flatlining.

No outrage, no sympathy, no disgust, no sorrow. Nothing much at all.

In part, it's the way the allegations and the trial have made him a ghost, hovering between Los Angeles and Eagle County, between the allegations and the truth, between what might-have-been and judgment day, and between the highlight reel and the mug shot.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant has always seemed just a little too smooth, ever since he made his NBA announcement.
Can't really feel for a ghost.

But it's not just the assault charges and all they've brought about. It's deeper than that.

Kobe's magic has always been an easy, polished thing. Even his misses are pretty, and the shots he makes are a graceful, unhurried blend of art and inevitability. He's lithe and fearless, and I admire his composure and envy his brilliance. I watch him and I know I'm seeing some key elements of the game at their lyrical best.

On the flip side, his smooth has always seemed one touch too smooth. The sunglasses at the podium for his high school coming out party, the hyper-studied Jordan moves, on the court and off, the tendency to shoulder the offensive load too happily and too fully, the tough-guy glare that played like a front, the pitch-perfect postgame interviews -- he worked from a script from the get-go. Even his bonehead comments about playing with Shaq came from a detached, superior place.

Can't get close to that.

Maybe this is a cheat. Maybe he moved me more than I remember, and I'm just reading him back through the lens of the scandal. Maybe, but I don't think so. He dazzled and impressed. Sometimes, he knocked me out. But there was always an intense, self-conscious professionalism about him that kept my affection and devotion off the table.

I wish they were there now.

I want to empathize with a kid living and dying with the consequences of his actions. I want the sting of losing one of my boys. I want to feel the mixed-up worry, anger and faith of being a fan.

It's just not there.

Kobe misses a game to make a court date. I don't mind. He plays flat, and I don't sweat it. He says (of Phil maybe leaving) that he doesn't care. Neither do I. We've got three titles and eight years in the books, and it's like we have no history together. Jerry Buss says he wants Kobe to be a Laker for life and I'm thinking, Yeah, whatever. Even the coming verdict, which if it goes against him could put him out of the game and behind bars, is barely on my emotional radar.

I know I'm an ungrateful bastard for saying so. I should take my championships and shut up. Or better yet, dig a little deeper, be a decent human being, and imagine myself in his shoes . . . imagine how invincible he must have felt once, and how much he must wish he could have that night in Colorado back now.

Kobe Bryant
Now Kobe's in the battle of his life, and how many people really care?
I got close that day last spring when he held the press conference full of choked-up phrases and regrets. He seemed awkward and human then, but that door closed quickly and there's little chance it'll ever open again. (If anything, he'll have to be more guarded on the other side of the trial.) And that open moment just brought the poses and postures of the past into sharper relief.

It's not that he owes me or any other fan some sort of openness or candor. Lots of superstars have been cool and reserved; some, like DiMaggio, have even been as self-conscious and mannered as Kobe's been.

But it's the fans' fantasy to imagine that the way we throw our heads and hearts into the fortunes of our teams and our players counts for something. We know we can't really affect the outcome of a play, a game, a season (or a trial), but still we get lost in the headlong wishing and wanting of rooting. We have stakes. They define us. They hurt and they heal. They drive us down and raise us up.

Kobe and I, we've never had that kind of relationship. Long before the developments in Colorado, his cool, automatic way short-circuited that fantasy for me. Now, when it ought to be the most urgent, it's just absent.

The other day, a friend asked me whether I'd "soured" on Kobe in light of what's happened these last several months. Soured would be fine. Rallied to his defense would be fine, too. Either one would suggest a passion.

"The hell of it is," I told him. "I don't feel much of anything about him."

And that, I feel lousy about.