SALT LAKE CITY — Kobe Bryant badly missed four shots in a 1997 second-round playoff game against the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center, and there couldn’t have been a happier fan base. Not only did the Jazz win the series to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but the series of airballs gave Kobe detractors ammunition to playfully mock the promising young rookie.
Let’s be honest. If you weren’t a fan of the purple and gold, Bryant sure made it easy to pull extra hard for your team when they played. “Air-ball!”
Not everyone loved the way Bryant sometimes acted on the court. “Air-ball!”
It was annoying that he’d reportedly refused to play for anyone but the despised Los Angeles Lakers. “Air-ball!”
It was mind-boggling that he was so good, so young. “Air-ball!”
Who did this teenager think he was? The Next Michael Jordan?
Yes, in fact, he did. And he was.
Time, circumstances and maturity — from opposing fans and their old nemesis — can sure change opinions.
That was one of the thoughts I had when I found out the shocking and saddening news Sunday afternoon that Bryant died in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven other people.
During his career, while scoring more points (1,549) and playing more games (84) against Utah than any other player, Bryant was one of the best players to ever torment the Jazz.
By the end, all the hate was gone.
It’s easy to remember the times he’d play the refs or when he’d seemingly gloat while breaking fans’ hearts or when he stole Karl Malone away from the Jazz — and good grief, how irritating was it to have a sea of No. 8 and No. 24 yellow jerseys in every arena he played in, including Utah?
But Kobe’s engaging smile could light up an arena, even the one in Utah after 20 years of a gained mutual respect.
I remember the sincerity in his eyes as his career progressed and he’d openly compliment opponents — like the time he said Gordon Hayward reminded him of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Or when he’d tip his hat to opposing fans. (“I enjoy coming here,” he once said of Utah. “The fans here are nuts.”)
That determined look he got on his face that made you know your team was in trouble.
The grit he showed while hitting free throws after tearing his Achilles heel.
The pride he displayed while wearing the U-S-A jersey during the Olympics.
The adoration directed at Gigi when they were captured in courtside photos or when he talked about her love for basketball.
The kindness that he exuded when he hugged Jazz owner Gail Miller in his final Utah game and pounded his chest in appreciation to fans who’d given him such a fun-loving hard time for so many years.
As heart-wrenching as the deaths of Bryant and his daughter are to the sports world, there were some heart-warming moments that rose from the ashes of this tragedy.
Teams across the NBA took 8-second backcourt violations and 24-second-clock violations to begin games on Sunday.
Soccer star Neymar held up two fingers on one hand and four on the other to honor Bryant after scoring a goal.
People shared stories of how Bryant had treated them respectfully, how he’d given a beautiful example of fatherhood through his dedication to coaching his daughter, how he tried making the world a better place after his NBA retirement.
Former NBA player Kendrick Perkins, who’s had an ugly public feud with Kevin Durant in recent weeks, reached out to his old teammate and apologized, having experienced a softening of his heart due to Kobe’s death. “Whatever I did to hurt you I’m sorry, bro, and hope you forgive me!!!” Perk wrote to KD on his Twitter account. “I love you, bro. Real talk.”
My friend Tony Jones, who covers the Jazz for The Athletic, shared a beautiful moment he had in the aftermath of the awful Kobe news. “My brother called me from jail to tell me (he) loved me,” Jones tweeted. “He told me he was proud of me.”
Every time I logged back onto social media Sunday, the timeline showed Jazz fan after Jazz fan openly mourning the untimely loss of the man they used to despise and admire at an MJ level. It was a complicated relationship, but one that evolved in a positive way over the years.
The animosity has been replaced by respect, admiration and a sincere feeling of loss. Love, too.
There are plenty of rough memories from basketball court battles between the Jazz and Kobe — most of which were in the Lakers’ favor — but those seem so trivial now.
Byron Scott, the Lakers coach at the time of Bryant’s retirement, summed up the legend’s competitiveness perfectly on the night Kobe punched the Jazz in the gut one last time by scoring 60 points in his NBA grand finale in 2016. He mentioned that the legend showed up every night ready to destroy his opponent. Kobe ate the hate for breakfast.
“The arenas he played in most of the time hated him, and I think he really loved and relished being the villain,” Scott said. “He loved taking your hearts out as fans, as players as teams. He enjoyed that, and I think the league is going to miss that.”
The NBA has missed Kobe the player.
Those who loved him and those who loved to hate him — even in Utah — will now simply miss Kobe the man.