Call me an L.A.-loving sycophant. Label me a superstar-gazer. Blame me for aiding and abetting the Jazz's enemies.

But I like Kobe Bryant.

So shoot me.

There goes my invitation to Larry H. Miller's Christmas party.

Now that I've outed myself, I may as well move to West Covina and file my columns from there.

I'm not going to have many friends after this.

When the Jazz and Lakers resume their series tonight at ES Arena, it's not going to be pretty. My guess is it's going to be downright personal. That's what happens when someone threatens the Jazz. He automatically becomes the worst person since Caligula, even if he is the MVP. Or maybe because of it.

Admittedly, the man has a world class smirk. And the chest- pounding and and shirt-tugging can certainly be annoying. He demanded to be traded last year if the Lakers didn't surround him with better talent. He called Jazz fans classless when they booed Derek Fisher.

Still, if you've been around Bryant at all this post-season, you have to ask: Why do so many people hate this man? He has excellent hygiene. Doesn't swear in public — much. Reportedly he's quick to pick up the lunch tab for teammates. He's polite, articulate and, yes, even humble.

Did you notice when presented the MVP trophy, last week, he credited his teammates? Were you paying attention, Sunday, when he had a wide open chance to blame his injured back for L.A.'s loss to the Jazz? Instead, he credited Andrei Kirilenko, saying, "No excuses for me. AK did a great job. Great defensive player. They just did a terrific job."

It wasn't condescending, or even tongue-in-cheek. It was genuine.

And that was after scoring 33 points.

Not all MVPs have been so generous with their praise.

Shaquille O'Neal was never good at lauding someone who blocked several of his shots. The last guy who did that was Greg Ostertag, and he got slapped to the floor for his trouble. Karl Malone wasn't good at praising opponents, either.

Yet after Wednesday's game, someone asked Bryant if he thought the Jazz would battle back, now that they're on the brink of elimination, and he replied, "That's a Jerry Sloan trait. They're going to keep coming. They don't know any other way."

It was unvarnished respect, one hyper-competitive person to another.

Some say this is all damage control, thanks to that sexual assault case in Colorado, in which Bryant was acquitted of criminal charges and settled the civil suit out of court. Could be. But it doesn't seem rehearsed. When he was 19, he air-balled two shots in Salt Lake when the Jazz eliminated the Lakers from the 1997 playoffs. Asked in a press conference last week if he remembered those shots, he said good-naturedly, "Yeah. Horrible experience. Thanks for bringing it up again."

Everyone laughed. It was a genuinely funny moment. So was Wednesday, when a reporter asked if he thought he could get up high enough on a dunk, due to his sore back. He said he wasn't sure and that he "felt like Luke Walton" — who himself had missed a dunk. Laughter erupted again.

That's not to say Bryant is perfect. By his own admission, he cheated on his wife in Colorado. Not smart. Still, Michael Jordan got caught after cheating on his wife, too. Bryant can annoy people with his "smoking gun" gestures, but does anyone recall MJ holding aloft his shooting arm after burning the Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals?

Sure, Bryant attempts a lot of shots; so did Jordan.

Does he get favorable treatment by the refs? Of course.

So did Jordan.

Bryant even went down the stretch of Wednesday's game doing nothing but passing.

Not even MJ did that.

Bryant made some stupid mistakes in his personal life. But he is well-spoken and agreeable. He's also the best player on the planet. In terms of comportment, competitiveness and overall savoir faire, he's a lot like you-know-who.

You know that saying "Everyone loves a winner"?

It's true.

It just gets complicated for people when he plays for someone else's team.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com