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From rousing Philly intro to warm exit, Kobe feels at home

Sixers (1-18) get first win of season, snapping losing streak

POSTED: Dec 1, 2015 11:57 PM ET
UPDATED: Dec 2, 2015 9:38 AM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker

NBA.com

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— "Why is everybody here?" Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said, smiling, facing a news conference room jammed with media members. This was just minutes after the Sixers won their first game of the season, 103-91, over the Los Angeles Lakers, after losing their first 18 games. And in a perfect world, an effort of the kind the Sixers put forward tonight should probably be rewarded and celebrated.

But the truth was something else, which Brown knew as well as anyone: Brown's turn at the open was essentially a warmup act for the headliner back in his hometown, Kobe Bryant.

Bryant spent the night before the game grabbing a cheese steak at Larry's Steaks, and then driving around the city, looking at the parks where he used to play as a teenager. He talked about his fondness for soft pretzels and his memories of playing in the Sonny Hill League as a teenager.

"Some of my fondest memories come from playing in the Sonny Hill League," he said. "I remember one summer playing the entire summer and not scoring one point. That was a turning point for me, it really was. I was 11 years old, and I was hoping maybe I'd get like a technical free throw, you know what I mean? Zero points the whole summer, and that became a big motivating thing for me, to make sure when I came back to the Sonny Hill League I was ready to play, I was ready to compete with them. That's how I measured myself. Against the Donnie Carrs, the Alvin Williams', the Rasheed Wallace's, all these guys. That was the ultimate competition."

GameTime: Kobe's Farewell Tour

Rick and Brent discuss what it means for Kobe and the Lakers' as he embarks on a farewell tour around the league.

After a rousing ovation from the Philly crowd during introductions, Bryant began his final game at home red hot, making three of his first four 3-point attempts, racking up nine points in the game's first 74 seconds. Brown would later suggest that the young Sixers players were a big starstruck in that moment.

"They were," Kobe confirmed, laughing. "They were. When I came out and made three in a row, I could sense they were like, 'I don't really want to touch him.' And, 'Holy crap, is this going to be an 81 situation? I don't really know what to do.' And I'm just playing possum, because I know my legs ain't gonna carry this energy for 48 minutes. But certainly I could sense a bit of that."

Were there any other similar moments, Kobe?

"The jump ball at the end was interesting," Bryant recalled, referencing a play where Bryant found himself jumping against Sixers point guard T.J. McConnell. "We lined up and he goes, 'I can not believe I'm about to line up and do a jump ball with you right now. This is crazy!'"

Whatever stage fright affected the Sixers early wore off pretty quickly. On the strength of Bryant's hot start, the Lakers built a 14-point first half lead, but the Sixers came storming back, playing an uptempo, athletic brand of basketball. They shared the ball, totaling 28 assists on 37 made field goals, and the Lakers couldn't keep up. The Sixers didn't look like an 0-18 team, and they no longer are.

Meanwhile, after Bryant's hot start, he finished 7-26 from the field, including 4-17 from behind the 3-point line. He totaled 31 minutes, five rebounds, two assists, three turnovers, and finished with 20 points in the loss.

The Starters: Kobe Bryant - Best Moment

The 81-point game? The alleyoop to Shaq? Not flinching in front of Matt Barnes?

In many aspects, it was a vintage Kobe performance -- taking defenders one-on-one, getting to the basket, pulling up for improbable 3s. The difference, of course, is that now, 20 seasons in, those shots seem to have stopped falling.

According to Bryant, a large part of it is trying to figure out how to get his body ready to play night after night: "It's how to sustain it. I've had games where the start of the game is horrendous and the end of the game's better. I've had games where the start of the game's great and the end of the game's horrible. Or the start's horrible, the middle's great, the end is horrible. So, we're trying to figure out how to navigate my body through a situation where I can find some consistency. It's very, very hard. It's uncharted territory for me -- there's no blueprint I can look to, for a guard 20 years in, in this type of situation. So, trying different things -- ice bath, stretching, how much to stretch, when to lift, when not to lift.

In some ways it was fitting that Kobe's first game after announcing his retirement came in Philadelphia, as there is at least one clear parallel between Bryant and Iverson: Just as Iverson ended his career wanting to play the same style of basketball that made him one of the all-time greats, with no interest in deferring to anyone else, Kobe seems to have no interest in going out as anyone other than Kobe Bryant.

Why wouldn't Kobe play fewer minutes for a contender? Why wouldn't Kobe facilitate, or spend more plays serving as a decoy?

Because that's not who Kobe Bryant has been, and that is not, apparently, what Kobe Bryant is ever going to be.

If you're going to be a champion inside and out, you can't run from the tough times.

– Kobe Bryant

Now Kobe finds himself facing another challenge, having to figure out how to bend his creaky body to the demands of playing in a 20th season, while being as productive as he's historically been throughout his career. And it's exactly the kind of riddle Kobe loves trying to unravel.

"If you're going to win championships," Bryant said, "if you're going to be a champion inside and out, you can't run from the tough times. You can't run from the criticism. You can't run from the fact that you're not playing as well as you want to be playing. You've got tot stand up and face that stuff, just as you would if everybody was singing your praises and you're winning championships and everything is fine. You can't run from that stuff."

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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