Kobe Bryant: The Final Days

Laker great Kobe Bryant reflecting on the culmination of his career. Photo Courtesy: Michael Kolch
Kobe Bryant reflecting on the culmination of his career. Photo Courtesy: Michael Kolch

 

By Kendrick E. Johnson

Love him or hate him, every real National Basketball Association fan is going to miss watching the great Kobe Bryant do his thing at an arena near you.

After spending two weeks over the last couple of months with Bryant and the Lakers on his farewell tour, one gets the see up close how much the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time is respected by fans, peers and coaches around the league. Simultaneously, I got to see why Bryant’s 20th season will be his last, as his game-day routine is full of hours of stretching and body massages instead of actual game preparation.

Despite the Lakers being destined for the lottery and Bryant not being at his physical best, the 18-time All-Star is enjoying and embracing his farewell tour.

“It’s been fun being able to enjoy each city one last time and things like that,” he said. “I’ve laughed and joked around with the fans which is something I typically never do. I was looking forward to the (All-Star Game) to be around the guys and get a chance to joke around with them a little bit, have some shooting games with them a little bit and get out there and play one more time.”

I first caught up with Bryant and the Lakers in December as they were capping off the first leg of his farewell tour. Bryant had just made his retirement announcement and the Lakers already had knocked out six Eastern Conference cities where Bryant will never play again including his beloved hometown of Philadelphia which kicked off the road trip. After being around Bryant and Company for two days and watching them play their seventh and eighth games of a 13-day road trip, it’s easy to see why the Lakers’ longest journey since a nine-game trip in February 2008 was the most overwhelming and emotional of Bryant’s long historic career. One can see how the Laker legend soaked up and cherished every moment of his final NBA city.

“It’s been crazy man. It’s been different, being on the road and experiencing (that),” Bryant said in Houston at his post-game press conference. “The acceptance and the thank-yous and things like that, it’s been wonderful.”

At both the AT&T Center in San Antonio and the Toyota Center in Houston, fans in purple-and-gold shirts packed the stands and chanted the future hall of famer’s name while cheering him on at the top of their lungs. Fans in both cities instantly went crazy from the moment he entered the court for pre-game warm ups until he came out of the game for good.

For Bryant’s longtime teammate, Metta World Peace, who is the only current player on the roster to win a title with him, the positive reception his legendary teammate is constantly receiving is anything but a surprise.

“It’s always like that with Kobe. It’s honestly not new,” World Peace said. “It was like that every year all the time (chants of) ‘Ko-be, Ko-be!’ Now this is his last year, so obviously it’s a little more electric, but it’s always been like that.”

With both the Spurs and Rockets having legitimate championship aspirations, one would think players on those respective teams would take offense that their loyal fan bases essentially rooted against them. But they’re not, because just like the fans, the players and coaches know there’s only one K-O-B-E.

“I was chanting his name, too,” Rockets guard James Harden said after his team beat the Lakers, 126-97, at Toyota Center. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance that you’re going to see this guy play again. I haven’t had the chance to see Michael (Jordan) play in person, but (Kobe is) a modern Michael.”

To make sure he can play in as many games as possible this season and perform at as high of a level as his body will let him, Bryant rarely attends shoot arounds or practices these days. While others are getting up shots, the retiring Bryant is getting his body stretched and worked on so that he can leave a positive lasting impression on those who will probably never see him play live again.

As usual, all of Bryant’s pregame work paid off, as he was able to follow his 12-point performance on 5-of-12 shooting in San Antonio with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in three quarters the next night in Houston to close out the grueling road trip on a positive note.

When Bryant was pressed about if he was he upset about not being able to play in the fourth quarter of the Houston game despite having his game going, he simply smiled and said, “I’m not worried about that. I’ve had plenty of those games before; this is the end for me now.”

I caught up again with Bryant and the Lakers during three games of their four-game home stand at Staples Center.

The second game against the Spurs marked the 10-year anniversary of Bryant’s career-high 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors at the Staples Center. Despite remembering almost every detail of the historic night he produced, the NBA’s second-highest scoring performance behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962, Bryant still has no blueprint 10 years later on how to score points at such a record clip.

“There’s really no explanation for it,” Bryant said after scoring only five points in a loss to the Spurs. “You can always explain it from an X’s and O’s standpoint and training standpoint, but when nights like that happen, there’s always something mystical about it.”

On the final game of my trip to Los Angeles, Bryant was forced to sit out against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks due to his various ailments. Although the week ended quietly, I can whole-heartedly say the Black Mamba is at peace with his basketball mortality and we should all embrace him because after April 13 there will be no more Kobe Bean Bryant to respect and appreciate on the court.

“I feel very at peace about (retirement) and I’m just wondering when it’s really going to hit, or if it is because I’m very much at peace with my decision,” Bryant said. “I can certainly bring myself to that place but when I think about it, I’m thankful to have been here, I’m thankful to have enjoyed all these memories. So there’s no reason to be sitting and dwelling on it, I’m just thankful for the time I’ve had.”