Anybody who watches MSNBC’s “Lockup” knows this much about prison etiquette: It’s all about perception. You might come into the bing at 5-foot-4 with a real pretty mouth, but if you create the perception right away that you’re stone crazy, you can drop the soap all you want and not have to worry.
Same rules apply in basketball. Guys only mess with you if you let them think they can, which is what makes Kobe Bryant such a strange case. Despite being probably the illest player on the planet for the last decade or so, Kobe still regularly runs across opponents who treat him like a rookie. Even Michael Jordan had his agitators, but by the time MJ was a few rings deep into his career, they were fewer and farther between. With Kobe, despite all he’s accomplished and proven, there still seems to be a perception around the League that he’s soft or susceptible to mind games. Even the younger, less-decorated LeBron doesn’t have as many guys going after his head as Kobe.
Over the weekend, Matt Barnes joined the rank and file of Kobe instigators. Although the Orlando swingman was on the wrong end of a 34-point effort by Kobe, he had Kobe more frustrated than anybody has all year, and Barnes’ team got the win. That got us thinking about the surprisingly long list of Kobe’s most notorious agitators…
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The feud peaked when Ray was in Seattle, and was briefly reignited when he joined the Celtics and beat Kobe in the ’08 Finals. Back in ’04, Kobe’s first year without Shaq, Ray publicly questioned Kobe’s leadership ability and predicted he would regret losing the big fella. “If Kobe doesn’t see he needs two-and-a-half good players to be a legitimate playoff contender or win a championship, in about a year or two he’ll be calling out to Jerry Buss that. ‘We need some help in here,’ or ‘Trade me.’ And we’ll all be saying, ‘I told you so.’” That led to an alleged threatening phone call from Kobe to Ray and some tense stare-downs on the court, but both guys have downplayed the rivalry ever since.
They’re on the same side now, but Artest and Kobe have had their battles in the past. Things came to a head during the ’09 playoffs, when Ron-Ron’s Rockets gave the eventual champion Lakers a scare in the second round while Artest and Kobe traded elbows and technical fouls. In fairness, though, Ron doesn’t discriminate towards Kobe. He’d act like a bully if he was playing against his auntie.
Maybe this should be the other way around. Because no matter what Shaq may have said or did to ruin the relationship in L.A., it’s hard to top Kobe name-dropping Shaq to the Colorado cops. After Shaq left the Lakers, the League and the media tried to force a Kobe/Shaq rivalry which never really materialized. But while both sides say it’s all good now, who can forget this?
Straight from Jay-Z’s “If I shoot you I’m brainless, but if you shoot me you’re famous” class photo, Raja’s career would be easily forgettable were it not for his run-ins with Kobe. Claiming he was only retaliating against Kobe’s dirty tactics, Raja made a name for himself in the ’06 playoffs when he unleashed a clothesline on Kobe that Big Van Vader would’ve been proud of. Raja later called Kobe “pompous” and “arrogant” and said he didn’t respect him, but Kobe only responded with the “I don’t even know who this guy is” bit.
The Buster Douglas to Kobe’s Mike Tyson, Childs has his own statue in the Kobe Haters Hall of Fame for what he did during a 2000 Knicks/Lakers game. Going face-to-chest with the taller Bryant, Childs popped Kobe with a quick one-two straight right and jab combo, then made some slick defensive moves to avoid whatever onslaught Kobe had planned. Kobe might have been able to get some revenge, but David Stern apparently had Childs sent to the same island as Jimmy Hoffa — he was rarely heard from again after that fight.
Despite winning four championships together, Kobe and Phil have never seemed to be exactly on the same page. Phil tried to guide Kobe through his early-career growing pains, which included arguments over Kobe’s role on the team and instances where Kobe responded to Phil’s criticism by purposely not shooting the ball to prove a point. When Phil retired in ’04, he aired Kobe out in his book The Last Season, but the two made up and reunited to win another title in ’09.
It was like the Spurs braintrust went into a lab and created Bowen to be the ultimate Kobe agitator. Coming out of nowhere to become one of the best defensive players in the League, Bowen was dirty, sneaky, and had absolutely no interest in the offensive side of the game — meaning he could devote 100% of his energy to getting on Kobe’s nerves. Although I can’t think of a memorable incident where Bowen caught Kobe with his infamous “ankle breaker,” that doesn’t mean he didn’t try on countless occasions.
This beef didn’t extend past Reggie’s retirement: Miller has gone on record saying Kobe is the NBA’s most complete player after Jordan, while Kobe has gone on record saying Reggie is the toughest player he’s guarded in his career. But on the court, they got into it. In the closing seconds of a 2002 game the Lakers had well in hand, Kobe jacked a three in Reggie’s face. Not a good idea. You see, Reggie might be skinny and awkward (well, he used to be skinny), but he’ll attack like an angry kangaroo in a second. The two squared off, Kobe threw a punch, and next thing you know they’re locked up and crashing into the scorer’s table. Reggie later told reporters that Kobe had “issues.” Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal were bystanders for this fight, which was like a sparring session compared to what they had in store two years later.
Not quite LeBron-vs.-DeShawn Stevenson, but a one-sided rivalry nonetheless. Smith brings the noise factor — he recently tweeted something like “Kobe is great except when he plays me” — and Kobe responds by handing him buckets and losses. But J.R. has had some big games against Kobe and is at least a notable thorn in his side. If nothing else, he gets credit for being one of the few younger dudes in the League that isn’t in awe of Kobe and goes at him like he would any ol’ dude from Jersey.
If you don’t count that whole felony conviction/impending jail term thing, this is one of the beefs Kobe probably lost. It started in Dec. 2006, when Gilbert walked into Staples Center one night and dropped 60 points on Kobe and the Lakers. After the game, Kobe said, “First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that,” then criticized Gilbert’s shot selection. Arenas, as usual, had fun with it: He went on a streak for a few weeks where instead of saying “Hibachi!” after hitting a shot, he said, “Quality shots!” to mock Kobe. “Ever since Kobe said I was lucky, I say ‘quality shots,’” Arenas said. “Maybe Kobe would say that was luck. It’s luck when you score 30 or 40, but luck can’t get you 50 or 60.” The next time they met, Kobe got the win, but Arenas gave him another 37 points. But due to Arenas’ injuries and now his legal issues, they haven’t faced off since.
We’re thinking Smush won’t get an invite when Kobe gets inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The NYC playground legend was the Lakers’ starting point guard for two seasons that Kobe would probably like to forget – when L.A. suffered back-to-back first-round playoff losses and Kobe had a terrible supporting cast. Smush was often the scapegoat for whatever went wrong, catching the wrath of Kobe and Phil Jackson. Now out of the League, he’s taken to blasting his ex-teammate in interviews by the bodega.