November 14, 2008

Crammed-On Chronicles VII: Kobe Bryant ON Dwight Howard - THIS is a PUBIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

(Also see the Fakin' the Funk fictional story: BAPTIZED!)

Kobe Bryant reminds you, “Don’t hate. Appreciate!”

November 12, 2004

The haters simply don’t get it, do they?

Look, if you’d rather not see Kobe Bryant light up your favorite squad, applaud him, politely. That’s right. In fact, shower him with praise, flower him with niceties. Compliment his improved shooting stroke… in Italian. Tell him how dope his rap album was, that you bought his sneakers the minute they hit the shelves. Build up his self-esteem and give him time to get all nonchalant and complacent.

If you truly wish nothing but the very worst for Kobe, please, don’t boo him. And for godsakes, if you’d rather not have your favorite prized young star brutally exposed before the world, by all means, do NOT heckle Kobe Bryant.

Haters are Kobe’s fuel, you see. It’s been that way ever since his 2002 All-Star homecoming in Philly. Striving desperately to win back the hearts and minds of people who once cheered him on as a suburban high school phenom, Kobe scored, scored and scored some more on his way to winning the game MVP honors. For his efforts, through the entire game, true-to-form Philly fans booed him worse than they’d boo Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem in a Santa Claus outfit. Trophy in hand, Kobe left holding back tears while getting run out of town on a rail. “My rookie year, I came out of high school, my first game here, they booed me a little bit, too,” he told reporters. “And that really, really hurt, because it was like my homecoming... That was very, very hurtful.” From that moment forward, he consciously stopped waiting for the kind words of others to inspire him to greatness. It’s much easier to feed off the hate, bitter as it tastes. “I'll use it as motivation, definitely,” he said. “I'm the type of person where if something occurs in my life that's hurtful, I'm going to turn it around and use it as some type of motivation.”

Still reeling from The Infamous Snow Bunny Incident in Colorado, and after successfully urging his GM to run the Lakers’ other marquee players and coach out of town, in 2004 Kobe entered the regular season knowing full well he’d starve waiting to be fed praise. He knew he’d spend the full season getting booed everywhere outside of Tinseltown.

While he was prepared to accept the booing, the hecklers were a different story. These cats pay top dollar to sit real close to the road club’s bench, and they come armed with every weakness and imperfection a baller carries, or is gossiped to carry, both on and off the court. Whether it’s his inability to take the ball to his left, defend their best dribbler, handle his liquor, or get it up with his girlfriend, they’re ready to remind him all about it, in the most distasteful terms imaginable. Anything goes, to get the player off his game just enough that the heckler’s team gets the advantage.

Some players simply cannot handle the persistent needling. Occasionally they’ll snap and give the Maxwell-like punch, Rodman-ish kick, Iverson-ian slur or Barkley-esque spit that, properly aimed, could guarantee the heckler big-time money and great courtside seats for years. After the way the previous year’s tumultuous season started, Kobe certainly couldn’t afford any more court settlements. He needed to find other ways to silence his growing legion of detractors.

Jump to the end of the second quarter at the O-Rena, where the Magic was chewing up all of the Lakers’ 18-point lead. When Kobe wasn’t getting hounded by a surprisingly spry Grant Hill and nursing a throbbing left foot, he was spending the better part of the quarter on the pine jawing back and forth with a Magic fan at courtside who brought his full bag of heckler tricks that evening. Kobe was fine with the booing, even the cussing. But this particular heckler managed to get under his skin with some sincerely vulgar words. Obscenities between the two escalated the repartee. It is unclear, to this day, what exactly was uttered, or whether the heckler was ushered out after things got heated. But it was quite clear to newswriters when he approached the fan at the end of the half, and stated these prophetic words:

No one in Central Florida could have foretold what Kobe meant by that plain proclamation. If they could, they might have called down to the Magic locker room to warn #1 draft pick Dwight Howard, fresh outta high school like Kobe, not to lace up his shoes for the second half.

Third quarter. Kobe was biding his time, waiting for the offensive play to open up. Ordering a screen from his new second-fiddle Lamar Odom, he blew around DeShawn Stevenson and past a flat-footed Pat Garrity and barreled straight to the hoop toward a wide-eyed franchise rookie, arms raised in a gesture of complete futility, as if to say, “Touchdown!” Newly awakened, Kobethought as he launched of his sore foot, now it’s time to revive the rest of the basketball universe. Starting with the air traffic controller beneath the boards, Mister Howard. Welcome to the NBA, young fella.

A game-long chorus of “boos” from the stands suddenly turned to even louder “ooohs,” and Orlando’s heckler was never heard from again. Kobe certainly would be heard from, as the play kick-started his drive, not only in this game (ending with a 41-point performance) but also his season. On a moribund Laker squad that would fall short of the playoffs for the first time in a decade, he would become the season’s second-leading scorer while reaching all-time highs in assists.

“Well, let me tell you something…” was about all longtime Lakers commentator Stu Lantz could tell you, before bursting into bewildered laughter. What in the world was THAT about? Some of Kobe’s own teammates stood up and glared, astonished. Where did THAT come from? Anyone within earshot of Kobe’s comment to the instigator, including a few photographers, understood completely. A teammate on that fateful 2002 All-Star squad who remembers the jeers and soothed Kobe’s ego, Magic guard Steve Francis recognized his poster dunk for what it meant instantly. The first to greet Kobe coming down for a landing (the dazed Dwight had stumbled away), Francis greeted him with a semi-serious shove, as if to say, “OK, you proved your point… now cut it out.”

Reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, Kobe essentially invited the idealistic young Dwight to come on over to The Dark Side. That really isn’t the worst thing in the world for Dwight when you think about it. Dwight should just ask Ben Wallace, just another marginal, undrafted player going through the motions with the Wizards when Kobe chose to crown him Fool of the Year in an otherwise meaningless 1998 preseason game.

Consider, at barely more than three points and one measly block per game, would Big Ben even be in the League today were it not for the instant notoriety Kobe provided him? With one play, Kobe showed the would-be perennial D-Leaguer that his 6-foot-9 body was not built to take charges from guards, and as a result Ben developed the surliness and aggressiveness that morphed him into shot-block master, DPOY, and NBA champion.

In the span of just five seconds, the heckler got his message: don’t make Kobe angry… you won’t like Kobe when he’s angry.
All signs suggest Dwight is getting his message: Nice Guys Finish Last, and some will finish with a face full of an opponent’s shorts. Trying to be Mr. Nice Guy will only get your feelings hurt when the fans turn on you. You’ve got to be cold-hearted from the start, and make sure everyone knows it, if you want to succeed in this business.

And the basketball world got the message: when Kobe Bryant wants to send a message, he will authoritatively end all Play of the Year debates before the season gets a chance to warm up.

(2008 UPDATE: Almost 4 years to the day. Dwight Howard has meta-morphed his in-game composure, from one of a Clark-Kent-nice rookie to that of a Man-of-Steel-nasty All-Star. He may lead the league in dunks every season for the next decade. He’s dedicated to leading the pack this year as DPOY, maybe even MVP. And he knows exactly who to thank for steering him onto the Ben Wallace track from infamy to mega-millionaire superstardom. Kobe knows, too. “I baptized Dwight,” he’d declare with glee to reporters eager to remind him of his filthy feat anytime the Magic and Lakers face off. “I turned him into a defensive force!”)


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