Limitless: The NBA’s Best Players Make Us Hate Because We Love

I hear you. Don’t worry, I hear you. I can see why people dislike the “arrogant,” “egotistical,” “maniacal” athlete that makes excuses when he loses and struts when he wins. The Decision…to hate? Or to hate even harder? My question though, is why?

Some time ago, someone opened my eyes. You hate because you love he told me. Honestly, for a while that never made sense. It still doesn’t totally register. But I’m trying to figure out why I’m drawn to people who might have me rolling my eyes if I was around them all the time. It’s entertainment, but it’s more than that.

On Friday, stories leaked in the Los Angeles media about Kobe Bryant sizing himself up against Michael Jordan. During a sit-down with Phil Jackson, the L.A. Times’ Mike Bresnahan says Jackson shared an interesting story with him about a meeting he set up between two of the greatest players he’s ever coached:

“I wanted Michael to get Kobe to understand that he didn’t have to stray outside the offense,” Jackson said of the meeting he arranged in 2000. “I prepped Michael a little bit that this kid was just learning the offense. They sat down and talked and the first thing Kobe said to Mike was, ‘I can take you one-on-one.’

I smirked when I read that. I love it. And you know what the strangest part about it was? The backlash was eerily silent. Shots? Kobe barely took any. That’s amazing. Think about it: three or four years ago, dude would’ve gotten ripped apart. The media, and more intensely, the fans would’ve metaphorically tied him up, belted him with basketballs until he was bleeding leather and dripping Spalding. But now in 2011, it gets passed over. Either that, or he got praised.

Actually, that’s a whole other topic (why does every athlete have to go through the same phase – from God to the fallen to God again?). What couldn’t be lost in this was the gall of Bryant. Who walks up to the greatest of all-time in their chosen profession, literally the man who could do absolutely no wrong, the guy they studied their entire life, watched him embarrass any competition from the couch in their living room, one of the most famous people in the world, their blueprint, idol and goal all rolled into one, walk up to him as a kid barely old enough to do adult things, as someone who hasn’t really accomplished anything outside of being famous and exciting, and tell that man: “I’m better than you. Right now.” That’s intimidating. That scares people.

We call for these things, the 81-point games, the playoff triple-doubles and we wait on the rings, the clutch shots, the game-winners and then use them as ways to validate athletes. That’s fine. But at the same time, we use those same things to peel back skin. We can’t have both. We can’t ask for someone to be the absolute best, to publicly embarrass their competitors and do it over and over again, with no remorse for feelings or what anyone thinks, and then turn around and expect that person to be normal. You think you become special by being normal? It just doesn’t happen. When you think about it, to live for the exact moment when you crossover, sneakers squeaking as you push from left to right, rise up, fans cheering as they wait to crown or demonize you, shoot, defenders stuck in a daze as they slap at you, and wet the net is entirely rudimentary. It’s almost comical. When you really think about it, it’s all crazy. You have to be kind of crazy to live to dominate this. This game means so much to people. Why? Why?

I love when I see an athlete who just doesn’t care. They live it the way they want to. A lot of people say that, but really there are only a few who actually do it, their very own human race. Basically, someone who just doesn’t really give a $%^&. Does that make me a bad person if I enjoy watching those people dribble a basketball? Is it a bad thing that sometimes I wish I could be more like that? We all wish that sometimes.

Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan aren’t really any different. They just do a better job of hiding it. And that makes them a little like us, a little more boring.

I get that there’s a time and place for all of this. But face it, the only way you get to the level of a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James or a Michael Jordan, the people who could’ve easily crumbled, but fought back and overcame hype disguised as hate, is if you’re arrogant to a fault, the cockiness seeped into the veins of your game through years and years of shooting turnaround 10-footers in an empty gym on dust-covered floors with dead spots in the corners and the clock above the basket screaming at you to stop. It’s 10:46. You have school tomorrow. Go home. The truly great ones never listened. This is what they do. This is who they are. Some of you might know what it means to define yourself with one thing. It’s what you do, and you do it better than anyone. It’s your conversation-starter, the girl-catcher, the one thing you can always fall back on. I do this better than anyone. This is my fadeaway.

These players entire existence revolved around a hoop and a ball. Living for something they hope never dies, scared to become that 42-year-old who refuses to run pickup anymore because his fast-twitch muscles have decayed and his handle is loose enough that random, beer-gutted regulars can get a hand on it. To become ordinary is death. To become normal is suffocating.

When I read that story on Friday, it actually kind of shocked me. Maybe shock is the wrong word, but I just couldn’t believe Kobe said that. In reality, I should’ve seen it coming. I smiled and thought how could he ever say that? Really, I should’ve been thinking why wouldn’t he?

Without cockiness, without arrogance, all of this would be boring. Vanilla. Where’s the fun in that?

What type of player would you rather watch?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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