Unless you're a Lakers fan, there's a pretty good chance you've hated Kobe Bryant at some point in your life – two decades of dominant, domineering play tends to have that effect on folks.
Of course, there's an even better chance that Kobe never spent a moment fretting over his Q Score. In many ways, he's the Kanye of the NBA, as unapologetic about his pursuit of excellence as he was his sense of purpose. This is a guy whose 20-year NBA career can basically be boiled down to one famous quote: "Friends can come and go, banners hang forever." In other words, he was kind of a jerk – though his talents often made that easy to overlook, especially during his season-long farewell tour, which culminates tonight in his final NBA game at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
As an avowed Lakers obsessive, you can bet Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea will be in attendance – what's more, he's also playing the national anthem before the game. And as he reflects on Bryant's career and accomplishments in Purple and Gold, he's willing to overlook some of No. 24's shortcomings…because, man, did he mean a lot to the Lake Show and the city of Los Angeles.
"I've watched, listened to or at least read about pretty much every game that Kobe Bryant played his entire career," Flea says. "And I see someone who put a lot of stock in discipline and work ethic and nurturing his creativity. I just have always respected him so much – even when he was young and arrogant and foolish and you know, arguably self-centered. He's always meant so much to me.
"I look at him as someone like, you know, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix, you know?" he continues. "He's been able to change and evolve and grow and be such a master of his craft. It's been great seeing him grow up, because he joined the Lakers when he was 17, and he's done so much for our city."
Flea has lived in Los Angeles for more than 40 years, and during that time, he's seen the fortunes of his favorite team rise and fall – but the one constant has been the way basketball has brought people together. And as Bryant assumed the role of the sport's ambassador in the city, Flea's respect for him only grew.
"I moved here in '72 and I love Los Angeles – and on top of that, I just love basketball; the way that it brings people of all economic and ethnic classes together is a beautiful thing," he says. "And after Magic and Kareem retired, having Kobe and Shaq and Pau and Lamar and Fish here meant everything to this city. To me, Kobe is just like a great artist or a great writer or a great musician. A great basketball player really affects me in a emotional and spiritual way. So I really respect Kobe Bryant. I'm really grateful for him."
But despite all that – and the 5 titles he won for L.A. – Flea isn't quite ready to proclaim Kobe the greatest Laker of all time. Sorry, Mamba…his loyalties still lie with Magic.
"That's so hard, man," he laughs. "For me, Magic Johnson is the greatest player of all time. I kinda have to put Kobe third…they're all different players, you know? Magic's a point guard, Kareem's a center and Kobe is a shooting guard. So you know, it's really hard to rank them. I mean, they're all completely different players and they all gave so much to the sport."
Additional reporting by Jason Newman.