Kobe's farewell game was about much more than the 60-point showcase that delighted his loyal fans
POSTED: Apr 14, 2016 11:12 AM ET
Players from around the league give their thanks to Kobe Bryant and describe what he's meant to the game.
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LOS ANGELES — The ball surrendered.
We all did.
We all gave in to logic and common sense, and the reality that we were watching a young team that had just been eliminated from the playoff race a couple of hours ago, and another young team that was eliminated from the race around Christmas. We gave in and watched a 37-year-old man take more shots than a set of preschooler triplets getting their rubella and chicken pox vaccines.
Shoot away, Kobe Bean Bryant. Shoot the ball, over and over, and listen to the roar of the home crowd. It's how you came in, shooting airballs against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 playoffs your rookie season. It was damn sure how you were going to go out, going 6-for-21 on 3-pointers against Utah in your 20th season. The lights, cameras and action were all on you, as they've been the whole season, even on this night, when the Golden State Warriors made NBA history.
Jazz vs. Lakers
Kobe Bryant went out with a Hollywood ending to his remarkable career scoring 60 points in his final NBA game Wednesday night, wrapping up 20 years in the NBA with an unbelievable offensive showcase in the Lakers' 101-96 victory over the Jazz.
Warriors 73, Kobe 60.
Sixty points, 50 shots, shots from all angles, both easy and preposterous, and no one dared say no. It was ridiculous and the antithesis of team play, and you couldn't take your eyes off of it. He overpowered the game. (The poor Jazz, their postseason dreams snuffed out by virtue of the Houston Rockets winning earlier that night, might as well have had no discernable markings on their uniforms -- no names, numbers or city of origin, so reduced was their role.)
It is how Bryant has been his entire career, and since he's the one leaving with five rings, 18 All-Star appearances and 33,643 points -- third all-time on the NBA's scoring list -- you can argue about his choices, but the results kind of beat you down. Efficient, schmefficient.
"The coolest thing is my kids actually saw me play the way I used to play," he said afterward. "It was like, 'whoa, dad.' 'Yeah, I used to do this pretty often.' 'Really?' 'Dude, YouTube it.'"
Lots of guys retire. Few have tens of thousands of people standing outside the arena in which they play their final game, because they so desperately wanted to be a part of it.
Kobe's 60-Point Finale
Kobe Bryant put up 60 points with six threes, four dimes and four boards in the final game of his 20 year career.
The choice Wednesday, both for viewers and those of us on the West coast this last night of the regular season, was going to see the Warriors or Kobe. Not Warriors or Lakers. The Lakers are in suspended animation and the franchise has been asleep the last two years, having decided to (correctly) give Bryant a two-year, $48 million valedictory deal in 2014 for services rendered, titles won, revenues raised.
The won-loss record those two years: 38-126.
The Old Kobe, Warrior Kobe, Snarling Kobe, would have kneecapped teammates who accepted a record that awful. But Retiring Kobe has let his guard down, stopped looking for any slight, real or perceived, to stoke himself. He knows shooting the ball 50 times in a game is insane, but what the hell, where is this bunch going? Shoot away.
So, Warriors or Kobe, and I chose watching the individual on the horrible team over the great team whose play transcends its individual players.
There were reasons.
There is, I admit, generational dissonance at play here. I had been covering the league for almost a decade when the Lakers got Bryant in 1996. I've witnessed the entire arc of his career. Now, he is 37 and I am older than him by many years. Yet Bryant is a familiar, comfortable character in my world, piercing the Zeitgeist almost on a whim with a latest shoe or commercial or Finals appearance. It's been that way for a long time.
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So, respect has to be paid. The Warriors are a story for the ages, to be sure, their place in basketball history undeniable. But it just felt more right to be here, to honor the link Bryant represents between the NBA's past and its future.
"I mean, nobody's stayed with one team for 20 years," said a man who looked and sounded an awful lot like Jack Nicholson, until you realized, Holy Jake Gittes, it is Jack Nicholson. And he's talking to you.
"Kobe's carried us for 20 years," Nicholson said. "My son, Ray, came to his first game when he was four years old. And, just watching him play. It's unbelievable, watching Kobe play."
It is a marking of time.
It's hard to believe that there are fans and players who believe in their hearts that Bryant is the greatest player of all time, because I know in my heart that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time, and my worldview dominates my worldview, if you get my meaning.
And this is where one begins to understand what it's like to be older -- or, just old, when you begin to understand the frustration of men now in their 70s who insist that Jordan couldn't hold Oscar Robertson's jock. Your opinions no longer are conventional wisdom. Your opinions actually begin to matter less and less. You feel it, just as you feel the inexplicable back pain that surfaces more often than you'd like these days.
I am reminded of the brilliant essay the great writer Roger Angell wrote in The New Yorker two years ago, about (then) being 93, but still alive and kicking:
Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends -- old friends but actually not all that old: they're in their sixties -- and we're finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There's a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they've just left it. What? Hello? Didn't I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA -- a transient ischemic attack? I didn't expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we're invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You've had your turn, Pops; now it's ours.
David, you old coot! Snap out of it! This isn't about you! it's about Kobe!
Kobe Bryant is doubled over like a shrimp.
He has eaten a room service cheeseburger and piece of cheesecake in his Sacramento hotel room. They did not agree with him. He is diagnosed with food poisoning, leading to speculation that the food may or may not have been tampered with by an overzealous Kings fan. After all, it is May 20, 2002, and the Lakers and Kings are going to play Game 2 of the Western Conference finals the next night.
But he rallied. The Lakers' athletic trainer, Gary Vitti -- also retiring after Wednesday's game -- couldn't believe it.
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He has marveled over the years at Bryant's talent, toughness, work ethic and intelligence -- "intellectually brilliant," as Vitti put it, always curious about everything. Bryant had popped dislocated fingers back into place, had improved shooting left-handed after ripping up his right shoulder. Gastroenteritis normally takes days for people to get over. Bryant is back on the floor in 24 hours. He shoots 9 of 21 in that Game 2 against Sacramento, 42.9 percent. But the will to play under those circumstances is incredible.
"I tell people all the time, he could have played in the '80s," James Worthy said. "He had that '80s mentality -- not a crybaby, played physical, work ethic second to none. He created those rivalries against certain teams. He definitely bridged that gap. When I see him, he reminds me of an Andrew Toney, that nasty attitude, a Magic Johnson, guys of that era. Mo Cheeks. They had that killer instinct every night."
His career trailed, then overpowered, Shaquille O'Neal's, their battle of wills lasting long enough without a resolution for the Lakers to dominate the world, winning three straight titles under coach Phil Jackson's watch. Then Bryant's demands that O'Neal get in better shape met Shaq's desire for a new deal, and beloved owner Jerry Buss chose Kobe -- as did most of the Lakers' fan base. Perhaps only Magic was as genuinely loved by L.A. fans as Bryant.
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A hero to strangers, a villain to many teammates. Not all; that is not fair or correct. Those whom he respected, who cared about the game and were smart about playing it -- like Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Luke Walton and many others -- were, and are, real friends. Yet Bryant comfortably wore the black hat, in public, in practice, anywhere it would help.
"It's like everyone in this room," Bryant said. "It's a very simple concept when you think about it. We all have a little hero or villain inside of us. It's just dependent on perspective."
Perspective is central to coming to grips with the tipping point of Bryant's public life -- rape charges filed against him in 2003 by an employee at a Colorado hotel at which he was staying.
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There cannot be a recounting of Bryant's life and times without speaking about Eagle, Colo., and what happened there -- the employee charging Bryant with raping her in his room, Bryant acknowledging the infidelity, but insisting the sexual encounter between them was consensual. The woman, raked over the coals by Bryant's attorneys, eventually decided to drop the charges.
(I know many media outlets have reported the woman's name in the past. I know that many people who write about sexual assault believe it is necessary to mention the names of the survivors, because they are human beings with families and loved ones, and should not be reduced to "the accuser." I have decided not disclose her name. In my opinion, wherever she is this morning, she has no desire to publicly relive what occurred. If I'm wrong, so be it. Blame me.)
Bryant's immediate response once the charges were dropped was to issue a statement that noted, in this case, that there was a great difference in perspective between the two people and their beliefs about what occurred:
Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.(endital)
I do not write about this to try and determine what Bryant "learned" or what his experience was, for it doesn't matter a whit compared to the woman's experience, or how she has come to live with what occurred. There are women, I am told, who are assaulted and desperately want people to know that they were raped, and they still run errands. They are jarred. But their lives go on. I know that I am not equipped to understand.
Kobe Talks End of Era
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Bryant's career continued, with games consequential (81 points against the Raptors in 2006) and quizzical (what exactly did happen in that second half of Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns in the 2006 first round, when Bryant only took three shots?). There was a brutal Finals loss to the Celtics in 2008, but two more titles came in 2009 and '10 with Gasol alongside Kobe for all three Finals. Then came injuries, in quick fashion -- torn Achilles', broken kneecap, torn rotator cuff -- that ended three straight seasons.
Lakers coach Byron Scott thus wanted badly to get Bryant through this last season on his feet. Mission accomplished.
... I gave my soul to this game, until I had no more left to give. Nothing. If you guys feel that way at the end of your careers, you'll feel just as comfortable as I am.
– Kobe Bryant, to Lakers youngsters D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson
"There's just nothing that does -- 60 points -- it wasn't like a surprise," Scott said of this last, amazing night. "I knew he had it in him. At the end of the third quarter, he looked at me. The idea was to take him and bring him back in the fourth. He said, 'let me go.' I said, 'you got it.' It's special after that."
What the Lakers do after Bryant is up in the air. They'll have cap room, and four young players -- D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr, and Julius Randle -- to decide on this summer. Is that a quartet around which a championship team can be built? Can the Lakers' current brain trust convince a difference-making free agent to sign here to play with them? Or do they have to change their targets and approach?
Bryant said he told his young charges they have to work together this offseason.
"It's easy sometimes for them to break apart," he said. "It's really important for the guys -- D'Angelo, Jordan -- to continue to figure out, together, where you like the ball, this rhythm, this rhythm, watch film together. They have to build this. That was my message to them.
"I said, the reason I can stand in front of you guys and feel extremely comfortable with my decision, is I gave my soul to this game, until I had no more left to give. Nothing. If you guys feel that way at the end of your careers, you'll feel just as comfortable as I am. I'm telling you, it goes by fast. If you don't give it your all, you're going to regret it. You're absolutely going to regret it. And, don't be that guy."
He is not that guy. The quiver is empty, as is Bryant's tank. No more time, sweat, blood or damns to give, his career his own, the rewards and memories full and his to savor.
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