“He’s no Michael Jordan”.

Every Kobe fan has heard these words countless times in their life.

It seemed like any attempt at appreciating the legacy that Bryant is now walking away from would somehow lead a conversation to these words being spoken.

As a vocal Kobe hater my entire life, I’m sad to say that I’ve used this same argument more times than I care admit.

But before I continue, let me explain myself for refusing to let Kobe fans explain themselves.

Growing up, I was a huge Shaq fan. So I had to hate his “sidekick” who’s personality on and off the court repeatedly clashed with O’Neal’s.

I was also a Dwyane Wade fan. So I had to hate the guy who everybody had given the “Best Shooting Guard in the league” title to.

I was also a Lebron James fan. So I had to hate the player that was seen as the best in the league when James was winning MVPs.

Lastly, I was a Toronto Raptors fan. If that was going to lead me to hating anybody, it would be the man who always left Toronto with a win, usually after ripping out the hearts of 20,000 people in the ACC.

As a fan of the sport, there is nothing I regret more than not being able to appreciate Kobe’s greatness while it was happening in front of me.

I loved seeing Kobe Bryant not be able to contend for a championship immediately after Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat. When I should’ve been marvelling at his incredible ability to be a one-man offense, I was too busy criticizing him for not being able to make his garbage teammates any better.

I loved seeing Kobe Bryant lose in the 2008 Finals. After the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol (A trade that turned the young me into a conspiracy theorist) they virtually stopped losing. Seeing Kobe go all the way to the Finals was disheartening for someone who believed he could only win with Shaq. I don’t think I’ve ever cheered as loudly for a team I don’t care about as much as I did for the Celtics that year.

With all the happiness I found through his failures, I found even more sadness through his success. Looking back at his illustrious career, it seems I must have had a 16-year emo phase.

I hated seeing him score 50 points with ease. I hated seeing him take (and make) almost impossible game-winners. I hated every single one of his 81 points that horrific night. I hated that he was able to repeat as a champion in 2009 and 2010.

But after spending most of my life hating Kobe Bryant the basketball player, I now realize how rare Kobe Bryant the human being truly is.

To be clearer, I realized how rare Kobe Bryant was in 2012-2013. You know, the season that is now referred to as “The Dwightmare Saga”. Kobe had Steve Nash (for about half a game before his body gave up on him), Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Ron Artest/Metta World Peace/The Panda’s Friend. It was a season that was every Kobe haters dream come true. He was surrounded by talent and was losing, something that was very rare in itself during his career. The only problem is, during what was probably the most disappointing year for the Lakers, I found myself turning into a Kobe fan.

Every game that year was a chance for Kobe Bryant to silence all the critics. With great teammates comes great responsibility, and nobody thrived with added responsibility like The Black Mamba. At the age of 34, he was somehow putting up numbers that 99% of NBA players dream about in their primes. The countless hours he put into perfecting his craft showed on every shot. His usually stoic face was full of expression on every play. This was a man on a mission, and if that mission failed he was at least making sure it wasn’t because he could’ve done more.

It wasn’t until that last game when Kobe injured his Achilles and was ruled out for the rest of the season (including the playoffs that he single-handedly took them to) that all my criticisms about him came to an end. When he walked up to the free throw line, in obvious pain and shock, and hit the shots (to tie the game, of course.), I finally saw what every Kobe fan had seen for his entire career.

Kobe Bryant is more than a basketball player. Kobe Bryant is an inspiration. Kobe Bryant is living proof that hard work leads to success. Kobe Bryant showed me that if you ever want to lead then you must be willing to put in the hours when nobody is watching. He showed me that failure is never an option if you give everything you have. He showed me that hate can be the most powerful source of motivation.

So after all these years of Kobe Bryant proving me wrong, I find it surprising that I still have the same belief that I did way back then.

He is no Michael Jordan.

Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant.

And that’s why the league will never be the same without him.