originally published April 12, 2016
Kobe Bryant arrives at the arena in Phoenix, the same time as always. But nothing about this is the same. The crowd that used to loathe his every move, jeer at him, sling pejoratives and abuse are patiently waiting for him to emerge onto the court; that is the irony of it all. Some have made the lonely four hour drive from L.A. Some are locals who celebrate the Bryant career now that he is at the end. There’s a morbid fascination with players who have lost their youth, a sort of awe, as if it too is talent-rich. Some of the early arriving fans are faithful Suns season ticket holders impressed at how Bryant has seemingly fought every obstacle off, even the dredges of time, even the cruelty of a professional sport. But now that he is an old player with one foot out the door, there they are, huddled with their camera phones and hand painted signs and Kobe jerseys. They are leaning over railings when he trots onto the court. They chant his name and cheer as if this is a game 7 of the Western Conference Finals instead of a road game and a Lakers team that is pretty miserable to watch go through the motions.
Like a religious figure, one glimpse of Bryant bestows virtue. Some of the younger ones begin to scream.
Playing for Phoenix, Devin Booker, the Mississippi rookie, catches glimpses of his idol but he is not guarding him one-on-one until the end. When it happens, Booker’s eyes light up even as he tries to be cool about it. Afterwards, he spends a good 15 minutes in the locker room talking to Bryant, not saying much of anything, just listening and trying to take it all in. He is given Kobe’s game shoes with the inscription: Be Legendary. It is the theater of this Kobe Bryant season.
If basketball is truly about affliction more than it is about grace, then Bryant has sewn up all four corners. The pain of losing. The pain of fatigue. The pain of pain. The pain of blame. No one player advances the Pat Riley supposition more so than Kobe Bryant at age 37: there is winning and there is misery.
Sixteen days later, he arrives at Staples Center to the electric hum of fans who cannot witness what is going to happen on April 13th, Kobe Bryant’s last moment in the NBA, his last gasp of professional oxygen. Those tickets are priced so far out the stratosphere, the rank and file can’t score a ticket but here they are tonight, his next to last home game in the NBA, against the Clippers. The two teams played the night before and Bryant was very ordinary. But Bryant knows something the Lakers fans don’t. They drove him to these maniacal heights with their praise and criticism and judgment and passionate embrace of a 17 year old. And so, he finds himself, even with a broken body, he finds the will to get in and out of cold baths. To stretch. To remove ice. To strap on ice. He is going through great lengths for a 30 minute game, not for the fame. For the fans. Many of whom have traveled all over the world to get here.
Think of that. Think of boarding a plane in Istanbul. Think of waiting in the endless security line. Think of changing planes twice and a full 16 hours later you get here, Los Angeles, the Staples Center to see Kobe play 26 minutes. Think of who would inspire that type of devotion.
A tired but true cliche is that the retirement tour of the second greatest shooting guard in NBA history has taken on a life of its own. Many sneer at it under their breath, assigning it to some larger Bryant ego-complex. Regardless, it’s bigger than anything the NBA has seen before and frankly, it’s a surprise. The raw emotion is visceral. Often, there are tears. So much is being offered through the prism of nostalgic eyes as Bryant’s generation, the ones who were teenagers in 1996 and now have kids of their own, try to deal with the idea of a NBA without him.
He raised an entire generation.
20 years as a shooting guard is unheard of. It’s more years than Reggie Miller and Ray Allen who logged 18 years. It’s more years than Michael Jordan who took time off twice in his 15 years. It’s more than Philly native Earl Monroe, a thirteen year NBA lifer. It’s more than Clyde Drexler who put in 15 years of time, like Jordan. It’s more than John Havlicek’s 16 years. Looking at Kobe Bryant’s shoulder wrapped in ice and his legs wrapped in heat pads, you see why. This game turns your body into sorrow.
Looking back on the width of his career, the seminal moment was failure which is a bit twisted to write since the Kobe Bryant narrative is success. But his earliest low moment propelled his career in a way he never would have imagined before his entry into the league. Suffering does make you grow and there he was jacking up airballs in Utah, in a playoff game that ended the Lakers season. He was an unthinkable 18 years old at the time. He was younger than D’Angelo Russell is now. But unlike Russell, there was nothing casual about how Bryant viewed himself and the game. When he got off the plane at LAX, he went straight to Palisades High School at one in the morning, called the janitor to let him in, and didn’t leave the gym until after the sun rose. By his own admission, that failure set the foundation for his career, for rising above adversity in one particular way: working harder than everyone else.
Rarely in his story is the word revolutionary attached to Bryant but he was drafted in 1996 out of Philadelphia, a skinny teenager from a suburban high school, the son of a NBA player who was attempting to put a square peg in a round hole. Guards went to college. They didn’t try to subvert the system. In the spring of 1996, there was a lot of who the hell does he think he is?
The way Jerry West tells the story, West went to Dr. Buss and said he loved this Philly kid, he thought he was going to be great but to get him they would have to trade Vlade Divac. All Dr. Buss asked was, “Can he entertain, will he sell tickets?” It is a ridiculous back story to his career but Bryant made the Buss family extremely wealthy by being exactly who he was, a fanatical workaholic who couldn’t tolerate losing.
On draft night in 1996, Bob Bass the G.M. of the Hornets who acquired veteran center Vlade Divac for an unproven teenager said, “it’s the most lopsided trade in NBA history.”
This is what Bob Bass didn’t know. When he was in high school, Kobe Bryant worked out with the 76ers on his off days. Tom Thibodeau was the young assistant coach and described it like this.
“Kobe would get there very early. He was always trying to get a coach to work him out, to get a player to play one-on- one. He would try to get the strength coach to work him out, to teach him how to lift. Then he’d watch practice. Then he’d try to get more people to play him one-on-one, then he’d get another coach to work him out. He was there all day. You knew he was so unique. And then when he played against the pros, you couldn’t tell the difference. If this guy makes the jump, I thought, he’s going to be a pretty good player.”
Still, it was uncomfortable at times for the young phenom. Fan favorite Eddie Jones was traded in 1999 so Kobe could get more playing time. Beloved champion Shaquille O’Neal was traded in 2004 so Kobe could get most of the playing time (and the money). Bryant’s career was absent the straight line of a Magic Johnson or Tim Duncan. There were a lot of ups and titles, and a lot of downs, and a trade demand. And a barrage of points.
Kobe was never the greatest player in basketball. Did he have a great career? Yes. Is he remarkably influential? Yes. Is he a fascinating figure and perhaps the greatest interview of all time among NBA players? Yes. But enough. This is Nero playing fiddle. He has never had a statistical case for being the best player beyond the counting stats. He doesn’t have a case. (Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN)
Kobe Bryant had his first 40+ point game against the Sacramento Kings. He was 21 years old. He had his first 50+ point game against the Golden State Warriors, a team he lit up for 40+ points, 9 separate times. He was 22 years old. He had his first 60+ point game against Dallas, 62 points in three quarters.
7 home games later, he had 81 points. He was 27 years old.
13 NBA teams, nearly half of the league, he victimized, scoring 40+ points more than 5 times. Memphis and Seattle/OKC and Houston, he annihilated 8 times each. The Clippers, Utah and Phoenix, couldn’t guard him either, despite the double-teams. 7 times he scored 40+ points on them.
In 2003, he scored 40+ points in nine straight games. It started on February 6th in New York. He dropped 46 points. He punished the Nuggets twice, on back to back nights. First 42 points, then 51 points. He lit up the Spurs, the Knicks again, the Rockets for 52, Utah, Portland and Seattle.
97 times he scored 40-49 points. 19 times he scored 50-58 points. 4 times he scored 60-65 points. Once, he scored 81 points.
His last 40+ point game was in Portland. 47 points. 8 rebounds. 5 assists. 4 blocks. He played every minute of the game. He was 34 years old. Two days later, his Achilles tore.
The damage was an appropriate metaphor for the rudderless Lakers who don’t have much insight on how to rebuild after Bryant’s spectacular career. The franchise’s most enduring lights, Bryant and Jerry Buss, have been vanquished though Bryant made valiant efforts to return to form. All to no avail. Too old. Too much playing through injuries. Too much body wear. Too much scoring. Too much damage and abuse. The body keeps score. The body keeps score. Damn. The body…keeps score.
Kobe Bryant has finally become everything he always said he never wanted to be and perhaps that makes a lot of sense when the end is here. But the love is the same. Why else go through all of this?
This has been a strange season for Bryant, this celebrated last one. He can take in all the magnificence his presence has created over two decades but it doesn’t negate the on-court misery, even amid the enduring cheers. A lot of hugs from NBA players post-game give the texture of a funeral and being wide awake.
In Minneapolis, he met Bob Williams, the first black Laker to ever suit up. It was difficult to discern who got more out of the encounter, Bryant or Williams.
Williams said: “It was awesome for me to talk to him even though I was 40 years before him. He said it was an honor to meet me.”
Williams was a pioneer, but only played for the Lakers two years. Bryant is a legend who has played ten times as long. After talking to Williams, after hugging his wife, Bryant was filled with joy.
Kobe Bryant never lost a Western Conference Finals series after the age of 20. He lost a game 7 in the playoffs only once. He played 220 playoff games, winning 62% of them. He had 11 seasons of 50+ wins, 3 60+ win seasons. He was Player of the Week 33 times, Player of the Month 17 times. From 2005-13, he was in the top (5) of the MVP voting. From 2003-2011, he was first team All-Defense.
When asked what #24 Kobe would tell a young #8 Kobe he said, “have empathy and compassion.”
While other professional athletes were furious at D’Angelo Russell’s breach of teammate etiquette and privacy, Kobe tried to strike a conciliatory path of forgiveness. Russell’s immaturity at 19 is the direct opposite of Bryant’s relentlessness at 19, still Kobe counseled Russell and let him know: this will pass one day. Keep working.
His peers, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade hate that he is going out like this, on a team that doesn’t play hard, compete and on most nights, they don’t seem to care. That’s the Kobe Bryant antithesis. And yet, here and there, glimpses penetrated the muck.
In D.C., with the house filled with his fans, he put on a 4th quarter show. Against Houston, he dunked over Clint Capela, a shock to just about everyone. He called it a “special moment in his career.” The 31 points on the road in Denver which marked his 4th straight 20+ game was a surprise. But the 28 points in 3 quarters against the Kings to close out his legacy at Arco Arena, a building that is going to be torn down, was not. What Bryant and the Lakers did to the Kings in game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals will live in infamy.
He scored a season high 38 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves, guarded by 21 year old Andrew Wiggins, a Kobe disciple. Wiggins knew the moves but couldn’t stop what was coming. The next game, in New Orleans, he had a double-double, 27 points, 12 rebounds. He had more rebounds than Anthony Davis.
How has all of this happened? It was just yesterday when the Commissioner called his name. With the 11th pick, the Golden State Warriors select Todd Fuller from North Carolina State. With the 12th pick, the Cleveland Cavaliers select Vitaly Potapenko from Wright State. With the 13th pick, the Charlotte Hornets select Kobe Bryant from Lower Merion High School, Pennsylvania.
Lakers trainer Garry Vitti called him the kid in 1996. He still calls him that. And so for the kid nothing has changed. But, for Kobe Bryant, everything has changed. The kid who never passed the ball has the second most assists in Lakers history, trailing Magic Johnson.
It was an emotional scene at his next to last home game, played against the Clippers. Chris Paul and lil Chris and Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford and his nemesis Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers and J.J. Redick swarmed him after the Lakers lost. It was a moment to film. It was a sentimental glance at what the NBA world used to be like when he was the center object. Kobe Bryant is still the center. His retirement has made a lot of people lose their mind. But he no longer is the object. His day has come and gone.
Often during this retirement tour, Kobe has given away his game shoes, his jersey, his wrist bands to players and fans alike. Remember me. Remember what I stood for. Work. Competition. Toughness.
Wednesday, come rain or shine, against the Utah Jazz, on a crazy night in L.A., at a little after ten in the evening, the era closes its Kobe Bryant teenager to the NBA door for good. Twenty years will be in the books. 33,000 points will be in the books. 5 titles will be in the books. One MVP will be in the books. Two Finals MVP’s will be in the books. Four All-Star MVP’s will be in the books. 81 points against Toronto will be in the books. 61 points in the Garden will be in the books. A game 7 win against the Celtics will be in the books.
On one side of the newly shut door will be quiet after a career of beautiful heartbreak, ecstasy and championship parades. On the other side, the Hall of Fame is waiting for the player no one thought would have this kind of global impact and fan devotion 20 years later. For the kid, the rest of his life is waiting.
Only Kobe Bryant knows what happens next.