The stakes of Kobe Bryant's yearly return to Philadelphia have rarely been higher. With the Sixers largely irrelevant for most of his professional career, only for a brief period in the early-2000s did a Sixers-Lakers matchup really matter.
Having officially confirmed this year will be his last, this final visit to The Center will carry weight. Given Kobe's fractured relationship with the city of Philadelphia, some have taken the opportunity to implore locals to give him the sendoff "he deserves".
For example, Michael Lee of Yahoo! Sports caught up with Bryant's high school coach, Lower Merion's Gregg Downer:
My hope would be Philadelphia takes the high road and does the right thing, said Downer, who will be in attendance Tuesday night. But you never know with this town. I'm hoping that there's good energy. A lot of eyes will be on Philly, and I think they'll come through and give the man what he deserves.
When it comes time for sendoffs or reuniting with old friends, I nearly always err on the side of respect. When polarizing ex-Eagles have their moment in the spotlight - looking at you, Donovan McNabb - I think Philadelphia generally does the right thing in celebrating one of our guys, someone who put his body on the line for a local franchise and brought us close to a championship.
But I don't buy the plea for adulation in this case. If you're attending tonight's game, you owe nothing to Kobe but your genuine reaction. On my end, I'm happy to treat him the same on the way out as I did the rest of the way.
After Sunday night's loss to the Pacers, he dropped an offhand quip about the beginnings of his basketball journey: "I was a Laker diehard growing up." That's not a quote from a player pandering to his base, but a long-known fact being repeated. He is not much better than the Dallas Cowboy-cheering scum that live in the Delaware Valley, and may in fact be worse, given that his dad played for the freaking Sixers.
I'm happy to give him a pass for saying he wanted to "cut the heart out" of the only contending Sixers team in my lifetime in 2001; if nothing else I respect Kobe's competitive nature, and the work ethic that allowed him to max out his potential the way few others have. That doesn't paper over the phony nature of his "love" for the area, which is only the cherry on top of a shit sundae to begin with.
His general presence and demeanor stem from the "You think I'm an asshole because I'm honest" shtick that most people grow out of by the time they hit their 20s. Rather than exuding coolness - which is pretty damn easy for a professional athlete of his caliber - his aura settles firmly in "dad trying to pretend he's cool" territory:
Topping the list of people I can't trust (just above players who wear t-shirts under their jerseys) are guys who give themselves nicknames. They are the very worst of us, self-importance so great that they decide the public can't be trusted to pick an alias.
Bryant revealed in his documentary "Muse" that the nickname arose from the difficulties he had during his legal issues in the mid 2000's:
I hear everything the crowd is saying. I hear it. Kobe sucks! So, it's like this place where it was my refuge is now being bombarded with all kinds of things they would say. I had to separate myself. It felt like there were so many things coming at once. It was just becoming very, very confusing. I had to organize things. So I created The Black Mamba.
Even if it wasn't tone deaf to attempt to separate your career from sexual assault allegations with an animal moniker that doubles as a phallic reference, this would be unbelievably corny. We make many choices in life, but what our friends and peers call us is not one of them.
The nickname itself also doubles as another theft in an illustrious series of Michael Jordan swagger jacking committed by Bryant; Jordan was nicknamed "Black Cat" by childhood friends in North Carolina, so it's only fitting that the man who failed to duplicate MJ's greatness tried to operate under a nom de plume nearly identical to one once rocked by the man himself.
You can sum up Kobe's career with that singular act. He is a store-brand version of the genuine article, the cereal you eat as a poor college student due to lack of resources. He took everything an all-time classic did, tried to copy it, and ended up with a shittier product that many people force themselves to pretend is comparable to the real thing.
Even his final act is phony. Bryant openly defied his critics for two decades, living the part of the villain perfectly. Stripped of his powers due to age and injury, he has pivoted in his worst stretch of basketball and turned his disastrous season into a rose-tinted farewell tour.
I'm not buying it. Kobe will go down as one of the game's greats, but I do not have to call him one of my own, and neither do any of you attending the game tonight. Send him off however you wish. On my end, that means booing his ass unmercifully until the curtain drops.