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John Smallwood: Love him or not, Kobe Bryant a Philly player

TRY AS HE MIGHT, LeBron James will never top Kobe Bryant. Sure, James and the Miami Heat elicited more than a fair amount of boos when they visited the Wells Fargo Center on Friday. But that will be nothing compared to the venom thrown at Bryant tonight when he and the Lakers make their annual visit to the place many in Philadelphia contend he erroneously claims is his hometown.

TRY AS HE MIGHT, LeBron James will never top Kobe Bryant.

Sure, James and the Miami Heat elicited more than a fair amount of boos when they visited the Wells Fargo Center on Friday. But that will be nothing compared to the venom thrown at Bryant tonight when he and the Lakers make their annual visit to the place many in Philadelphia contend he erroneously claims is his hometown.

When it comes to drawing the ire of the Delaware Valley - well, except for that township on the Main Line where Bryant is "truly" from - King James is a court jester compared to Kobe.

And that's a shame.

Even though he's played his entire career for the hated Lakers, Bryant should be a revered son of Philadelphia.

On the court, Bryant has represented what a Philadelphia basketball player is supposed to be all about - hard work, determination and dedication to the game. At age 33 and in his 16th NBA season, he is still one of the top five players in the league and shows little sign of slowing down.

He's a five-time NBA champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP, the 2008 NBA MVP, 13-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA first-teamer and an Olympic gold medalist.

Bryant, from the Class of 1996 at Lower Merion High, has given back to the community in which he lived. He donated $411,000 to a fund that provided the school district with a series of inspirational, interactive and educational displays. The school that he led to the state championship as a senior now plays in the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium.

Those at Lower Merion say that he still keeps in contact with former coaches, teammates and even teachers at the school, and his former high school coach, Gregg Downer, said Bryant still wears his Aces shorts under his Lakers shorts.

At the gym dedication ceremony in December 2010, Bryant told a crowd of nearly 4,000, "This is where I came from. This is where I grew up. I didn't go to college. This is my university. This is where my memories lie."

Except many in Philadelphia will never believe that.

He is unquestionably one of the most despised athletes in Philadelphia history.

Just last week, Bryant was ranked at No. 2 in the Comcast SportsNet series of the Top 20 All-Time Philadelphia Villains. Only the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, with Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman, topped him.

Listen to sports talk radio today and don't be surprised if venom spewed about Bryant generates more air time than the results of Super Bowl XVLI.

That's just the way it's been between Philadelphia and Bryant.

The next chapter comes tonight.

Bryant enters the game with the 76ers just 24 points away from passing his former teammate Shaquille O'Neal and moving into fifth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list; he has 28,573 career points. Considering he is currently the NBA's leading scorer at 29.4 points and has averaged 26.2 points in his career against the Sixers, 24 points are a strong possibility.

If it happens and the Sixers organization, as it should, acknowledges the achievement, I wonder how the anticipated sellout crowd will react.

This would be a moment that commands respect. Do you boo the man, or applaud the achievement?

Actually, I have no doubt that some will boo.

This will be the 18th time that the Lakers with Bryant play in Philadelphia. They are 9-8, including the 2001 NBA Finals, and have won the last four meetings. Bryant has scored in double figures in all but one game, when he injured a finger in the first quarter of last season's game.

You have to go back some time to remember him not getting booed here, and the relationship has seemingly deteriorated over time.

In his first pro game in Philly in 1996, a seemingly nervous Bryant went scoreless in the first half and then scored 12 points in the second half of a Lakers win. He claimed that his previous game in the city was bigger than his pro debut here. In that one, Lower Merion beat Chester in the Palestra to move to the state title game.

"Y'all can believe what you want to believe, that it was just another game," Bryant said that night. "I just have to keep it in perspective. I know I'll be playing in Philadelphia for a lot of years to come. I can't be overwhelmed by one game."

He also spent time defending his decision to go pro as a 17-year-old just out of high school.

"You can't please everybody with the decisions you make," he said. "That's not my job."

Remember that back in 1996 it was still considered presumptuously arrogant for a high school player to be bold enough to enter the NBA draft.

He had become more unpopular when it looked as if Bryant, who was drafted 13th overall by the then-Charlotte Hornets, bullied his way into a trade to the Lakers. That the Hornets acknowledged that they had a prearranged deal to draft Bryant for the Lakers did little to halt the impression.

Despite being the son of La Salle star and former Sixer Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, Kobe told Los Angeles he had grown up a fan of the "Showtime Lakers," a franchise that had twice beaten the Sixers for the NBA title in the 1980s.

Bryant's excommunication from Philadelphia had begun.

The narrative became that, although born in Philadelphia, Kobe moved to Italy when he was 6 as his dad continued his career in Europe. Even though he came back to the area for high school, Lower Merion is in Ardmore so Bryant had no true claim to call himself a Philadelphia basketball player, overlooking that he played in the Sonny Hill League, at Tustin Playground and regularly worked out with the Sixers as a teenager.

Kobe wasn't really Philadelphia, became the rally cry, and even if some part of him was, he disavowed that part whenever it was convenient.

Personally, I blame my colleague at the Daily News, Dick Jerardi, for the incident that truly cemented Bryant at the bottom of the hearts of Philadelphians.

After Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals here at the First Union Center, Bryant was on his way to the interview room when someone suggested he go back to LA. Bryant's infamous response was, "We're going to cut your hearts out Wednesday." So, the next day prior to Game 4, DJ, after hearing about the comment, asked Kobe if it, indeed, happened the way he had heard it.

"Yeah, it did," Kobe responded. "Hey, I'm honest."

That Bryant proved prophetic when LA actually clinched the championship in South Philadelphia only added to the sin.

Years later, when asked by the Daily News' Phil Jasner to reflect on that comment, Bryant replied, "If anything, they should understand where I was coming from. That's Philadelphia. If I was playing in Philadelphia and I said that about going to LA, they'd have loved it."

But they didn't. When he returned the following year for the 2002 All-Star Game, Bryant was booed virtually every time he touched the ball. He would score 31 points and hoist the MVP trophy with a smile as the jeers were heaped upon him.

In the decade since, it has not gotten much better.

Bryant has credited his Philadelphia upbringing with helping him deal with the boos here and the critcism he has received elsewhere, both on and off the court.

"That's where I got my thick skin to begin with, from playing in Philadelphia," he has said.

He will go down as one of the Top 10 players who has ever played. You can say a lot of things about Bryant, but you can't say that he cheated the game.

Tonight, Bryant could achieve an NBA milestone. If it happens, it will be interesting to see what Philadelphia does.

Will this be another detail added to a story that began more than 15 years ago or a long-overdue change in the narrative?

"I understand one thing," Bryant once said, "in Philadelphia, if they boo you, they love you."