Bryant no hero in his hometown of Philly

012910_kobe_400
Lakers star, and Lower Merion grad, Kobe Bryant returns home to face the Sixers tonight. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON - By the time Kobe Bryant, having changed in private from his uniform into an all-black outfit - right down to the tiny sleeve he wore atop a broken finger - walked to his Verizon Center locker to answer postgame questions Tuesday night, he'd had a memorable trip to the nation's capital.

The Lakers superstar had visited the White House twice in 24 hours, on Monday for a ceremony honoring the NBA champs and on Tuesday for a private breakfast with President Obama, who invited him back yet again for a little basketball this summer.

He'd been spotted at a chic Georgetown restaurant. He'd posed for photos in an arena hallway with singer Dionne Warwick. He'd heard the crowd of 20,173, at least half of whom it seemed were wearing his jersey, chant "M-V-P" when he stepped to the foul line.

And on exiting the court, after his workmanlike 26 points pushed L.A. to a 115-103 win over the Wizards, he responded to the mass adoration in emperor-like fashion, tossing his golden sneakers into the crowd, setting off a mad, beer-soaked scramble.

But tonight, when the Lakers visit the 76ers, Bryant will experience little of the glitz and even less of the love he's accustomed to. In the gritty hometown that loves to hate him, the emperor will be wearing no clothes.

When asked if he ever looked forward to returning to Philadelphia, where he is widely reviled as a villain of Cowboys-like proportions, you half-expected Bryant to snicker and say, "Yeah, right."

Instead, perhaps having picked up some pointers over eggs and orange juice in a 20-minute meeting with Obama that morning, he was gracious and politic.

"Every time," Bryant said. "I look forward to it every time. I get to catch up with high school classmates and friends that I still have down there. I bring them down to the game. Get a chance to see them. It's fun every time I go back."

He also gets to catch up with the city's almost irrational dislike for him.

He'll likely be booed every time he touches the ball. Fans will derisively chant "KO-BEEE" and eagerly reference their grievances: his "cut their hearts out" comment during the 2001 NBA Finals with the 76ers; his wearing a Dodgers hat during last fall's NL championship series; his Main Line roots and perceived "I've shaken the dust of this hick town and gone big time" demeanor.

And those who know him best will wonder how the relationship between a city and one of its all-time athletes could have gone so sour.

"It's funny," Gregg Downer, Bryant's high school coach at Lower Merion, said this week, "but Kobe gives the kind of blue-collar effort, physically and mentally, that you'd think Philly fans would love. He plays through injuries. He plays after getting IVs. He never stops out there.

"But I guess he has done and said some heat-of-the-moment things that have hurt him here."

One of the most recent came at that Phillies-Dodgers game in October. Bryant, wearing a Dodgers cap, was seated next to another reviled expatriate, Tommy Lasorda, in the L.A. owner's box at Dodger Stadium.

As soon as Downer saw that scene on TV, he texted his former player.

"He told me, 'Hey, I'm just doing the politically correct thing. I'm really a Mets fan.' "

Oops. That won't help.

The hometown hooting and hissing might hurt Bryant on some deep emotional level, but on the court, Downer said, it only fuels him.

"All the negativity he gets in Philly, he's unflappable about it," Downer said. "One area in which Kobe is borderline brilliant is in using those kinds of things to motivate him. If you boo him, you're waking up a sleeping giant."

That giant seems to be at peace these days. Except for Philadelphia, his redemption - from the 2003 sexual-assault accusation, the selfishness tag, the whole Shaq saga - seems virtually complete.

At 31, Bryant is the most recognizable basketball player in the world and arguably its best. He was worshipped at the Beijing Olympics in leading the United States to a gold medal. His jersey outsells LeBron James', and for the last two seasons everyone else's. Bryant has won an MVP and has been acknowledged for carrying his team to an NBA title.

And after a 2003 sexual-assault accusation catapulted him to Tigerlike notoriety in the tabloids (Bryant refuses to discuss Woods' situation), he has, by all accounts, made peace with his wife, his life, his sponsors.

He has reached the point where he can even joke about his ego. When reporters asked him if he'd heard the "M-V-P" chants in Washington, he said, "Not to toot my own horn, but Beep! Beep!"

The fact that in the Lakers' locker room Bryant dresses alone, talks alone, stands alone, reflects his relatively new status as the undisputed leader of the league's defending champs.

The Lakers lost two of three - at Cleveland and Toronto - at the start of the six-game road trip that will conclude Sunday in Boston, and Bryant has been critical.

"The mentality has to change a little bit," he said. "These teams are physical, tough-minded, hard-nosed type of teams. We have to make some decisions there. We have to try to step up to match that. That's not part of our DNA. We have to step up and match that and still play skillful basketball.

"I think last year we were probably a little hungrier and played a little harder," Bryant said. "This year, when we played [the Cavs] two times, they were the hungrier team. They sense that they want to win a championship, they want to go after it, so they're playing with a sense of urgency that we played with last year."

Even after the easy win at Washington, he complained that teammates weren't always executing and were taking ill-advised shots when they should have been milking the clock.

And maybe most surprisingly, given his internecine squabbles with Shaquille O'Neal, he has been critical of Pau Gasol.

"I think he can be better," Bryant said of the 7-foot Spaniard. "I get on him a lot. He's a great player already. But I don't want him to be comfortable just being a great player. I think he can be even better because he has so much talent. Offensively, he can do so many things."

The Lakers, who lost just 17 times in the 2008-09 regular season, are at 35-11 not quite at that pace this season, though the only team with a better record through yesterday was the Cavaliers.

If the Lakers are slightly complacent after winning their title, it's not because of Bryant, coach Phil Jackson said. His star has played with a broken right index finger, with ongoing back spasms and a painful elbow strain.

"The first places players can show leadership is where they make the sacrifices, show the sacrifices," Jackson said. "In our situation, Kobe has been playing through injuries that on other teams in other situations players might take two to three weeks off. That tells people this is a team on a mission, that it's not just a job, it's a job that requires sacrifice."

Bryant broke the finger Dec. 11. He decided to play with it in a splint rather than wait for it to heal. The Lakers scuffled initially and his shooting percentage dipped. But not his reputation.

Five nights after breaking the finger, he hit a game-winning shot against Milwaukee. On New Year's Day, he made another against the Kings. Last week, he became the youngest player ever to score 25,000 points.

He makes a salary of $23 million a year. The endorsements, which faded away after the rape accusation, have begun to return. And the president of the United States is apparently an awestruck fan.

"We talked, and he spent a great deal of time talking to my kids," Bryant said of the White House breakfast that morning. "We talked about the season and how it's progressing. It was good just to have that time with him."

So if the guy doesn't get any love in his hometown, it's probably no big deal, right?

"Everybody wants that respect in their hometown," said teammate Andrew Bynum. "I'm sure Kobe's no different. But whether he gets it in Philly or not, it won't affect him. I'm sure of that."

 


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.