In 2001, the Lakers came into Philadelphia for Game 3 of the NBA Finals and handed us the toughest loss of the series. Going into that game it was tied 1-1, and after Iverson went into LA for Game 1 and dropped 48 to beat the Lakers pretty much single-handedly, it felt like there was a chance. Not a big one, but enough that it hurt when Kobe came into town and tipped the series towards LA. Not only did he score 32, he played all 48 minutes. A stat that told Sixers fans he not only wanted to beat us, but he wasn’t going to let us win.
After the game, an upset Philly fan shouted something to the effect of “Go back to LA” to which Kobe responded, infamously, “We’re going to cut your hearts out Wednesday.”
And they did. And then again on Friday when they took the title. All in all, Kobe averaged 46.8 minutes a game in that series. The kind of performance that made it feel like even though Shaq got the MVP, it was personal for Kobe. That he focused all of his talent and all of his indomitable will on Philadelphia with the expressed goal of destroying us. It was only later that we all realized that it wasn’t personal for him, because he wanted to destroy everyone.
In the years it took our anger to harden into a deep and lasting respect, Kobe was a villain in his hometown. We carried a Kobe-shaped chip on our shoulders, so much so that when he showed up to the 2002 All Star game wearing his Dad’s Sixers jersey, he received a chorus of disgruntled boos instead of the hometown welcome he deserved. As things often are when it comes to Philadelphia and sports, our relationship with Kobe was complicated.
If you grew up in the greater Philadelphia area in the 1990s, depending on where you went to college and how honest your friends were, you knew a guy who played against Kobe in high school. Over the years, the number of guys you knew who played against Kobe in high school grew to the point where you couldn’t help but wonder if Haverford had a fifty or sixty guys on their Varsity team. Guys who alternatively got posterized by Kobe, stole the ball from him, got their ankles broken by him, hit a step-back over him, or watched him in awe from the bench. When they told you these Manute Bol-height tales around a basement keg of Busch Light, there was a reverence in their voice. Whether or not their story was true, imagining a brush with that kind of greatness affected them.
Because Kobe was drafted the year we took Iverson, there was no “what if?” for us. Spaceships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors, to paraphrase Andre 3000. We didn’t have to imagine what could have been the way the fans of the eleven teams who picked between Iverson and Kobe did (Vitaly Potapenko anyone?). Still, despite the fact that we got the most beloved Sixer of all-time in AI, when we watched Kobe tell the world he was going to break us, and then go on to break us (like if Drago had gone on to win in Rocky IV) we couldn’t help but wonder. Kobe crushed us in the way we’d watched greats like Jordan and Bird crush their opponents, with dedication, with purpose, with unapologetic awareness, and it made some of us wish he was ours.
Even if you never imagined him in the black, comet-ball jersey of the 2001 Sixers, every Philadelphian took at least a little ownership of Kobe. It’s a uniquely Philadelphian trait, one far more unique than any sandwich, that we’ll claim anyone who is even tangentially connected to the city with love. Yes we take ownership of the obvious people like Tina Fey and John Legend and Bradley Cooper and Questlove and Kevin Bacon and Abbi Jacobson and Kevin Hart and of course Will Smith. But if Adam McKay wins an Oscar, before he hits the stage, we’ll tell you he went to Great Valley in Malvern and Temple. Which is why, even though Kobe is unquestionably a Laker, one of the two greatest Lakers of all time, as much a part of the fabric of Los Angeles as traffic and talking about traffic, when he struggled to the line to hit two free throws on a torn achilles we turned to the guy next to us at the bar and proudly told them, whether they wanted to hear it or not, that Kobe was from Philly.
We held on to Kobe not just because he played his High School ball at Lower Merion, or because his Dad was a Sixer, or because he was one the most electric players ever to hit the hardcourt, but because we saw a quality in him we revered: effort. Kobe’s greatness wasn’t defined merely by his talent, but by the fact that he worked harder than everyone else. That’s why we respected him, why we loved him, why we had to tell anyone without earshot that he was one of us.
Back in 2001, Kobe Bryant said he’d cut our hearts out on Wednesday. He was right about everything but the “Wednesday” part. He cut our hearts out on Sunday, January 26th, 2020.