October 31, 2003

One of the most disturbing aspects of the post-Vail era in Laker history has been the "revelation" that Kobe Bryant is not a popular person within the Laker organization. For a number of writers, the fact that he remains a beloved figure with fans is difficult to fathom; after all, if Shaq doesn't like him, and reporters think he's an a-hole, and he's currently facing rape charges to boot, then how dare the fans give him a standing-o at Staples. This article is typical of the emerging meme, that for fans to disbelieve the rape charges against Kobe is itself an outrage, even though, as this writer puts it, no one has seen the evidence yet.

In fact, the reason why the fans are waiving "Free Kobe" signs is the same reason political activists thirty years ago were demanding freedom for Hurricane Carter: they believe that the charges are bogus, and that the notion that Kobe Bryant may spend the rest of his life in prison for the actions of that night is itself an outrage. To put it another, they think (with good reason after the preliminary hearing) that the accuser is lying, that real rape victims don't party up a storm and boast about their assailant's "size" several days after the attack, as this woman supposedly did, or, when she was examined only hours after the attack, wear a pair of undergarments stained with another man's semon. Rape is not a victimless crime, not when the accused may go to prison for a long, long time, so where is the injured party here? The fact that Kobe can afford Atticus Finch to represent him does not make him any more guilty, nor does it make his fans sexist pigs for supporting him.

And, in any event, since when does Shaq have any credibility as a team leader? The Lakers' drive for a fourth straight title was thwarted last year when Shaq chose not to get surgery until the last second, and played most of the season out-of-shape. Until Kobe became "the Man", the go-to guy on the floor, O'Neill had won a total of zero rings, and having the Mailman and Payton on the floor with The Big Diesel this season will not mean a thing come the last week of May against the Spurs (and considering how the Lakers obtained The Three Tenors who starred opening night, it would be hypocritical for fans to disparage Kobe's wish to test the free agency waters at the end of the season).

Fact of the matter is, the fans like Kobe because they see in his drive to excel, his passion for the spotlight, something they hadn't seen since Magic Johnson. I fell in love with the guy in Game 5 against Utah in 1997, when he threw up two airballs in overtime with the game on the line. This was someone who wanted the ball, who knew he was a star, even if his talent wasn't at that level yet, and the unbelievable yarbles of a rookie off the bench insisting that he was The Man won me over, even if it ended the Lakers' playoff run early that year. I suspect that a lot of other Laker fans share that feeling, and that is why the sports media is barking up the wrong tree on this one.

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