Column: As hero or villain, Kobe Bryant never took the middle ground

Kobe Bryant is welcomed onto the court for his farewell game at Staples Center on April 13.

Kobe Bryant is welcomed onto the court for his farewell game at Staples Center on April 13.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Channel the villain. Unleash the hero.

The moment Kobe Bryant announced his retirement, he chose those two sentences to define his 20 years in Los Angeles, bannering them on the home page of his website, explaining them in a box of text.

“No hero is perfect, and no villain is completely void of heroic intentions. We all live as both. What sets the great ones apart is how they use their inner villain to create something epic. It’s living as a HeroVillain. The HeroVillain channels fear, rejection, anger and doubt and turns them into strength, courage, power and determination.’”

That seems like a lot of heavy words to describe a guy who plays a game with a ball and hoop, but it perfectly details the paradox that was Kobe Bryant as he carried Los Angeles through five NBA championship and countless moments of chaos.


Sometimes he was a hero. Sometimes he was a villain. Sometimes fans adored him. Sometimes fans couldn’t stand him. The only place where Kobe Bryant’s HeroVillain never tread was the middle ground, accounting for what is arguably the most memorable 20-year marriage between an athlete and town in the history of sports.

So, ultimately, what was he? Hero or villain? It is the biggest question of the Kobe Bryant era. It is also the one that will ultimately remain unanswered, even though he left plenty of clues.

HE WAS A HERO in the summer of 1996 when, as a high school senior entering the NBA draft, Bryant and his representatives essentially told every NBA team that he would play only for the Lakers. This led most clubs to ignore him until the Charlotte Hornets, in a prearranged deal, drafted him and traded him here.

HE WAS A VILLAIN … when he ended that first season by throwing up four airballs in the final minutes in a series-finishing playoff loss to the Utah Jazz. Right before his ball-hogging binge, he shouted, “Man, don’t you dream about games like this!” For Lakers fans, not so much.

HE WAS A HERO in the spring of 2000 when he threw the alley-oop pass to Shaquille O’Neal to clinch the memorable comeback from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, leading to their first NBA title together.


HE WAS A VILLAIN because, despite the long hug he shared with O’Neal after that alley-oop, he had already openly begun feuding with the jovial big man. Bryant never respected O’Neal’s work ethic and only reluctantly passed him the ball. Earlier in that season, during a team meeting, O’Neal said he felt Bryant was playing too selfishly for the team to win.

HE WAS A HERO in the spring of 2001 when he led the Lakers to a 15-1 record in the playoffs en route to their second championship, causing even O’Neal to begrudgingly declare him as the best player in the league.

HE WAS A VILLAIN the following season during the All-Star game in Philadelphia, when he was booed so badly in his hometown that his eyes filled with tears. He was hated there because during the previous NBA Finals, he had yelled at a 76ers fan that he was going to “cut your hearts out.”

HE WAS A HERO in 2002 when overcame a bout of food poisoning suffered in a Sacramento hotel to help lead the Lakers to a seven-game victory over the Kings in the Western Conference finals en route to their third consecutive NBA title.

HE WAS A VILLAIN during the 2003 season when he openly questioned O’Neal for not having more timely surgery on an arthritic toe that bothered him through the season. This eventually led to the Lakers’ early elimination in the playoffs and a rift between the two men that would not heal.

HE WAS A HERO … actually, no, in the summer of 2003, he stopped being a hero altogether.

HE WAS A VILLAIN when he was charged with sexual assault in the summer of 2013 in Eagle, Colo., after engaging in an admitted adulterous encounter with a 19-year-old hotel employee.


HE WAS A VILLAIN when he held a tearful news conference shortly after the charge was filed, during which he claimed innocence of sexual assault but admitted to adultery. With his wife Vanessa sitting uncomfortably by his side, he said, “I sit here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed.”

HE WAS A VILLAIN when he played in the 2003-04 season while also spending time in Colorado preparing for the potential sexual assault trial. He would show up at games exhausted and distracted.

HE WAS A VILLAIN when the case was eventually dropped after the woman refused to testify. A civil suit was later settled out of court and Bryant, without ever admitting guilt, publicly apologized.

HE WAS A HERO, once again, at the end of 2004 season when he hit acrobatic jump shots in the final seconds of regulation and double overtime to give the Lakers a division-title-clinching win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

HE WAS A VILLAIN when the 2004 season ended in an NBA Finals series loss to the Detroit Pistons, during which Bryant pointedly refused to include O’Neal in the offense. Shortly after the season ended, Phil Jackson’s contract was not renewed and O’Neal was traded.


HE WAS A HERO in 2006 with his 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest point total in NBA history.

HE WAS A VILLAIN because, c’mon man, do you know how many assists he had in that 81-point game? Two. He took 46 shots and had two assists.

HE WAS A HERO in 2009 and 2010 when he proved he could win an NBA title — two of them — without O’Neal. The lasting image of those titles occurred after the 2010 Finals victory over the Boston Celtics, after a dramatic Game 7 victory, with Bryant standing on the Staples Center press table, his arms raised while confetti fell around him.

HE WAS A VILLAIN in 2011 when he shouted a homophobic slur toward NBA official Bennie Adams. He was fined $100,000 and issued a public apology.

HE WAS A HERO when he hobbled to the foul line and made two free throws after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in April 2013.


HE WAS A VILLAIN when, seven months later, he accepted the Lakers’ two-year, $48.5-million extension even though he had yet to recover from the Achilles injury and the contract would hamstring the Lakers’ ability to improve their team for several years.

HE WAS A HERO last November when, realizing his skills had diminished such that he was statistically ranked as the worst player in the NBA, he announced his retirement with a poem on a website and a letter to Lakers fans.

HE WAS A VILLAIN when, in five of the six games after his retirement announcement, he played at least 30 minutes including all of crunch time, leading critics to wonder whether he shouldn’t quietly step off stage so the younger Lakers could get more experience.

HE WAS A HERO when, seven games after his retirement announcement, amid all the criticism, he sat out the entire fourth quarter and overtime in a game in Minnesota after handing the ball to the kids and telling Coach Byron Scott to “Let ‘em go.”

It is time, now, for Los Angeles to finally let Kobe Bryant go.

Goodbye, hero. Farewell, villain.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter: @billplaschke