Ed. Note: This article from last November, but we're promoting it back to the front page in preparation for tonight's final appearance of Kobe Bryant in Portland.
For Blazers fans, opportunities to boo one of the most hated players in team history may be coming to an end.
Kobe Bryant will suit up against the Portland Trail Blazers for the 82nd time in his career on Saturday night in the Moda Center. Bryant has not officially announced his retirement at the end of the season, but all signs are pointing in that direction
Bryant's pending retirement will bring an end to one of the most impressive careers in NBA history. For 20 seasons Blazers fans have reveled in the many Rose Garden defeats of Bryant, and silently stewed as they watched the Lakers collect five championships. All the while Bryant has been booed mercilessly and held up as basketball's version of Darth Vader.
But what has he done to earn such derision in Portland?
Kobe vs. the Blazers: Surprisingly Mundane
Surprisingly, Bryant has only three signature moments against the Blazers in 20 seasons: 1) The famous Game 7 alley-oop to Shaq (which I refuse to link), 2) Clinching the 2004 Pacific division title with two spectacularly difficult buzzer-beaters, and 3) The second-highest scoring game of his career in 2007.
Beyond that, there is little tangible on-court history fueling the hate for Bryant. He hasn't faced Portland in the playoffs in 13 years, and only once were the Blazers competitive when Bryant's Lakers eliminated them. The Blazers and Lakers have not competed directly in the standings for playoff seeding since 2001. In short, annual 7-game playoff skirmishes or 82-game battles for home court advantagehave been largely absent. For most of Bryant's career the Blazers and Lakers have passed quietly in the night, occupying the same conference but not truly affecting the other's bottom line.
Accordingly, the majority of Bryant's 81 games against Portland have been run of the mill regular season contests. In those games Bryant has not torched the Blazers - his career averages are virtually identical to his averages against the Blazers:
The Lakers have not overwhelmed the Blazers in those contests either; the teams have exactly split the 60 regular season games in which Bryant has appeared.
There may be a perception that Bryant has regularly dominated the Blazers, but in reality he has not played significantly better against Portland than any other random team.
Off the court, Bryant has even been highly complimentary of Brandon Roy ("Toughest player to guard in the NBA"), Damian Lillard ("Focus on the...Damian Lillard's of the world"), and the Blazers' fans.
From an emotionless analytical perspective there just is not a lot of reason to hate Kobe Bryant. But Blazer fans continue to boo. Why?
Kobe Bryant, Harbinger of Doom
Perhaps, in an era of advanced analytics, when roster transactions are as much about game film as they are about player tracking data and salary cap minutiae, the hatred of Bryant is a reminder that perception, emotion, and attitude are still massively important to the NBA.
Bryant's first major playoff success came against the Blazers in 2000 when the Lakers broke the Blazers' hearts in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers' fourth quarter rally was capped off by Bryant throwing an alley-oop to O'Neal, clinching a trip to the NBA Finals and the Lakers' first title in 12 years. Blazers fans have long memories so that moment alone was enough to create some harsh long-term feelings for Bryant, but over time that play has become symbolic of even more.
After the 2000 Western Conference Finals the two franchises diverged. The Blazers fell apart the following season amid chemistry issues, while O'Neal and Bryant held their tenuous relationship together long enough to win three championships.
It is not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which Bryant overthrows the alley-oop, the Blazers win that game and the 2000 championship, and the Lakers' superstar duo self destructs amid pressure to deliver a first championship. Instead, Bryant and the Lakers have five titles and the Blazers have a lone playoff series victory.
Portland fans know this history - Kobe is the opponent that most symbolizes the recent struggles of the team and is a reminder that, quite frankly, the last 15 years have not been particularly great. It may not be entirely logical, but as Bryant's career rocketed into the stratosphere, it feels right to believe that he was a harbinger of doom for the Blazers in 2000. Booing him is a small measure of solace after so many years of disappointment.
The Most Detestable Lakers Ever
Bryant also played for some truly detestable Lakers teams after O'Neal left. He has teamed up with Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, and others. The Lakers circa 2012 somehow made fans feel bad for James Harden. To act as leader, captain, and face of the franchise with THAT roster would make anyone hateable.
Paradoxically, Bryant has also reportedly been a terrible teammate for much of his career. He has had conflicts over the years with O'Neal, Dwight Howard, Smush Parker, Vujacic, and others. Bryant admits that he has formed few close bonds with fellow Lakers. Bryant's self involvement reached its pinnacle when he became so frustrated with his teammates that he refused to shoot for an entire half of a playoff game. The only other superstar who pulled a similar stunt was one of the most detestable personalities in league history. Bryant may have been the best player in Lakers' history, but his unwillingness to play nice with so many different teammates, culminating in a decision to literally "take his ball and go home," paints a fairly detestable picture.
Making matters even worse is the fact that everything Bryant does in public seems cold and calculated, but nothing seems authentic. He has stolen a nickname from a movie, participated in a truly bizarre photoshoot, cut an ill-advised rap album, and imitated Michael Jordan's fist pump celebration. All of it feels like a façade, and all of it is copied from elsewhere.
Somehow, in a city full of actors, plastic surgeons, divorce attorneys, and Kardashians, Bryant has developed a reputation as the least authentic of them all.
That is a problem for Blazers fans because it conflicts with the core values of the Rose City. Portland is built around creating space to appreciate the unique and weird parts of every individual while eschewing corporate conformity. Kobe Bryant's persona, built by replicating the PR successes of others, feels like the antithesis of that sentiment.
A Final Insult
Even this season, in the final hour of his career, Bryant is robbing Blazers fans of satisfaction. Bryant has become so ineffective on the court, while remaining so unwilling to take a complementary role, that it has become depressing to watch. The skills are still clearly there, but he has no lift on his shot or ability to create space with his movement. Apex Kobe Bryant has been so burned into everyone's minds that it doesn't feel like beating Bryant when this late-career version is defeated.
Meanwhile, partially thanks to Kobe's stubbornness, the Lakers have become so bad that when the Blazers do beat them, it means the Lakers will get more ping pong balls and more chances at keeping their top-3 protected draft pick this summer. In a somewhat sinister manner, Bryant's terrible play and refusal to take a secondary role may be improving the Lakers in the long run.
In the end, few of these reasons for disliking Bryant are concrete and none can be explained by analytics. You can't quantify a person's ability to irritate. But, for whatever reason, Bryant has become the perfect storm of hateability for Blazers fans. And, to make matters worse, Blazers fans have been deprived of any chance to ever see Bryant get his comeuppance. Any victory over him feels hollow and will only contribute to the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. Even as he winds down and can barely play, Bryant has found a way to continue harassing the city of Portland.