Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why I Hate the Lakers

Elul is the time that we are supposed to focus on self-reflection and spiritual growth. It is a time we are supposed to see the good in others, ask for forgiveness and remove hatred from our heart. This is becoming a problem for me, because I now hate the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hatred is an emotion that is not taken to kindly in the Torah. The Torah clearly instructs us “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). It is one of the rare times the Torah commands us not to feel something. Typically the Torah forbids actions, and allows us the freedom to feel, because emotions can come and go without any repercussions. Hatred, on the other hand, is the root cause for so many destructive actions that we need to combat the very emotion itself. There are times we need to hate particular behaviors or actions, but we are never commanded to hate people. Yes, we are told to wipe out the nation of Amalek and not to forget how they attacked the most vulnerable of our people (Deuteronomy 25:19), but we are not commanded to hate them as well.

However, I enjoy hating the Lakers. Sports is much more fun when you have someone to hate. As a Miami Heat fan, my team spent the last two years being hated by everyone else, and being the hatee is not nearly as fun as being the hater. When you’re the hated team you can’t really hate other teams, you just take it from the other teams’ fans. The Heat and Celtics have a heated rivalry, but I don’t hate the Celtics (well, maybe except Kevin Garnett). I respect them and enjoy the intensity of the rivalry. Now that the Lakers have become the most hated team in the NBA, I am ecstatic to hate along with the rest of the country.

Why are the Lakers so hated? Here are the top three reasons in descending order:

3. Metta World Peace (Ron Artest)- That’s right, somehow Metta World Artest is the THIRD least likable player on the Lakers. That’s incredible. A guy who started a brawl in the opposing team’s stands and has been suspended 14 times by the NBA for acts of violence, cursing out fans and domestic abuse is more likable than two other players on his own team.

2. Kobe Bryant- Kobe Bryant has played for the Lakers since 1996. In those sixteen years much ink has been spilled on why Kobe is not more popular than he should be. While Michael Jordan became a beloved international phenomenon, Kobe is respected as one of the greatest players in NBA history, and not all that likable. Why isn’t he beloved.

There was the accusation of rape in Eagle, Colorado. Charges were ultimately dropped, but he did settle the civil suit out of court. He has had very public disputes with teammates and coaches, including Phil Jackson, mostly for being selfish and unable to work well within a team. His personality is often described as stand-offish and aloof. He nicknamed himself the Black Mamba and refers to himself as such.

The Olympics allows basketball fans to root for USA players on opposing NBA teams, and it puts you in the shoes of their NBA team fans. I now know that Kevin Durant is a lot of fun to root for. Russel Westbrook’s inconsistent high-flying game makes him terrifying to root for. Kobe Bryant is painful to root for. He often ignores his teammates and takes terrible shots. He makes bizarre faces when fouls are called on him.

Last week he was playing in a fundraiser in China with Chinese pop stars. His team was losing by 29 points in the second half, so Kobe decided to score 68 points against these hapless players in a charity exhibition game. The video is just uncomfortable to watch. The other players don’t get what in the world he’s doing.

It is so much fun to root against Kobe.

1. Dwight Howard- Howard has incredibly leapfrogged both of them. He ruined the Orlando Magic by openly requesting a trade while under contract, then denying he did, then doing it again, then denying he did…He forced management to fire Coach Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith. He announced publicly that he would only accept a trade to Brooklyn, thereby destroying Orlando’s leverage in a trade. Whatever you think LeBron did or didn’t do two summers, Dwight Howard is significantly worse, and now the least likable player in the league.

You throw those three players together on a talented super team in LA, and you’ve built a perfect storm of jealousy, anger and disgust from the rest of the country. It is fantastic.

I don’t really hate Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard. I’m sure I would enjoy getting to know them. However, for sports to be fun the emotional intensity needs to be ratcheted up, and artificial hatred is the best way to do that.

For women, this could be celebrity relationships. Many women become emotionally invested in celebrity relationships, whether it’s Jennifer Aniston, Kristen Stewart or the contestants on “The Bachelor”. Next time you step on to a plane, look at the magazines that the women are reading. Invariably 90% will be reading People or Us magazine (I have done this test numerous times and it never fails). For most it is frivolous entertainment. Sure some people get too emotionally invested in celebrity relationships or their sports teams, but for most, it is a fun distraction. You need just a little twinge of love and hate to make the whole endeavor fun enough to invest your time. It’s not real hate. Its “sports hate” or “celebrity hate”.

The truth is, in the Torah we have a similar concept. Yaakov (Jacob) is more obviously righteous when contrasted with his brother Esav (Esau) or father-in-law Lavan. We internally root for Yaakov and root against Esav. Do we “hate” Esav? Not entirely. We “Torah hate” Esav, like we “Torah hate” Cain, Haman and Korach. They probably had some redeeming qualities, but by being slightly repulsed by them helps emotionally connect to the story and the Torah’s narrative. I think this form of hate it can even be a little healthy.

So as we prepare for Rosh HaShanah I am resolute to remove real hatred from my heart and see the good in others, but I’m going to go right on sports hating the LA Lakers. Especially Kobe.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who built the first eruv in San Francisco. He has also founded the "Jewish Ethics and the Internet" program. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.