Flawed Kobe still gets my vote



November 01, 2005|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

When Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers at age 19, I put a poster of him up on my living room wall.

When he fired up three straight air balls his rookie year against Utah in the Western Conference playoffs, I pointed out that he was the only Laker with enough intestinal fortitude to take the last shot.

When Bryant nailed a game-clinching jumper against Portland one year in the conference finals, I stood up in a room full of snarky Blazers fans and thumped my chest. "Who wants to talk [smack] now?" I shouted. "The best player in basketball just sent your sorry team home. Enjoy the offseason, Blazer fans."

For years, the situation didn't really matter. I was a Lakers fan, Kobe was my guy, and nothing else was important. My friends teased me endlessly, even asking if I was jealous when Bryant got married, but I laughed it off. They had their own obsessions, too. Like Magic Johnson before him, Bryant was infallible in my eyes simply because he wore the purple and gold.

When he shot too much, I'd point out that he didn't have a choice, because Shaquille O'Neal was out of shape and unwilling to play defense. When the fans in Philadelphia booed him during the 2002 All-Star Game - even though he grew up there, and ended up being named the game's MVP - I fired back that this was the same city that booed Santa Claus and cheered Michael Irvin's career-ending neck injury. Were we really supposed to think Bryant was the bad guy here?

And while I'm rather ashamed to admit this now, when the news broke two years ago that Bryant had been charged with sexual assault in Colorado, my first thought was simply that his accuser must be lying. My second thought was: How will this affect the Lakers' chances for a fourth consecutive title?

In that respect, I'm no different from millions of sports fans around the country. Not because of Kobe, though. Most people I know hate him, and always have, even before the incident in Colorado. The reason I'm no different is that sports makes me, like so many others, completely irrational. And that's why sports is the new politics.

People always say they hate it when sports and politics mix, but when you break it down, they really aren't that different. We just pretend they are. Think about it: You either despise Terrell Owens and Tom DeLay for their actions, or you think they're ruthless competitors, and write their critics off as haters. You're either willing to ignore a few checkered incidents in Ray Lewis' and Ted Kennedy's past, or you think we deserve to know more about what happened on Chappaquiddick as well as outside an Atlanta nightclub after the Super Bowl in early 2000.

Brian Billick and George W. Bush have both, at times, embraced the philosophy that you're either with us or against us, and both have experienced mixed results. Bill Clinton and Jamal Lewis each say they're guilty of bad judgment, but not a more serious crime, and they remain popular with their supporters.

You can't change someone's mind about sports any more than you can change their mind about Roe v. Wade. At some point, emotion takes over, and any facts involved cease to matter. That's why Duke alum Shane Battier could bring peace to the Middle East and some Maryland fans would still argue that the media was making too big a deal out of it.

But at the same time, that's not a bad thing. It's just part of what makes sports so interesting. You have to be irrational in your devotion sometimes, otherwise you realize that, like comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, we're really just cheering for laundry. Knicks fans would be fairly upset if Latrell Sprewell had choked a member of their own family, but they were more than happy to cheer him on when he led their team to the NBA Finals in 1999. And no one in their right mind would argue that a man with three DUI charges was anything other than a menace to society, but when Sidney Ponson pulled off the hat trick earlier this year, there were still a few Orioles fans reluctantly posting on Internet message boards that the team should keep Ponson around because the rest of the staff was so thin.

I don't pretend to know Kobe Bryant, though I suspect that deep down, he might not be very likable. But tomorrow night, when the Lakers take on Denver in their season opener, I'll likely be glued to the television. Bryant's not a role model by any means, but when he puts on that purple-and-gold jersey, it hardly matters. You can try and change my mind, and I'll certainly listen, but you won't have much luck. Lakers fans know where I'm coming from. He may be a fool, but he's our fool. And whatever his approval rating is, he's got my support.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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