Photo / Bruce Ely
Kobe Calls Portland 'Special,' Compliments Lillard and McCollum
For the 40th and final time, Kobe Bryant exited the Moda Center court -- but unlike the previous 39 times, the 17-time NBA All-Star and sure-fire Hall of Famer was sent off with a standing ovation of mutual respect from the citizens of Rip City Saturday night.
Although Bryant finished with just 10 points in the 121-103 Trail Blazers win, the night held special meaning as "The Black Mamba's" season-long farewell continues.
"This was a blast to be here," Bryant said afterward. "I have so many memories here. Most of the time, it ended up on the losing side of things in the regular season, but so many great memories here. The fans and playoff battles, I just tried to take it all in as much as possible and just kind of glance around."
He added: "[Portland] and Sacramento, I mean those are really special places for me — [and] San Antonio — because of the playoff battles that we had. Just extremely, extremely appreciative [of the fans]."
Every time he touched the ball, Blazers fans booed Bryant... And the NBA legend wouldn't have had it any other way.
"My entire career, that’s what it’s been," he said with a smile. "Why would I want it to be any different, you know what I mean? Why would the fans want it to be any different? That’s the way it’s been… I think the big difference is at the end of the game: when the chants and the mutual respect — it’s like you can actually show it now because you know there’s no coming back. That’s the difference… But the boos every time I touch [the ball], I absolutely love it. One fan courtside was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna miss hating you.’
"I said, ‘Thank you. I’m going to miss loving the fact that you hate me.’"
It's hard to blame Blazers fans for any scorn they may have toward Bryant. A young Bryant was a crucial cog in a Lakers side that denied Portland a trip to the NBA Finals in 2000 where LA ended up winning the first of Bryant's five NBA titles, part of which he says is his favorite memory of the Rose City.
"I still remember the feeling I had [in Game 3 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals], coming up with the big block on [Arvydas] Sabonis down the stretch," he recalled fondly. "That being a pivotal game in the series, that was a pretty cool memory. I was still a baby. Man, I was like 21, 20 years old, had the afro. I could grow the afro; that was cool. That time was a really, really good time."
While Bryant received much of the fanfare, the story on the court was the relentless scoring of Portland's Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The backcourt duo combined for 64 points on 26-of-40 shooting to lift the Blazers to victory.
"They have so much talent, so much potential," Bryant complimented Lillard and McCollum. "They’re both extremely hard working and very curious about the game."
When asked if Lillard should be joining him in Toronto for the 2016 NBA All-Star game, Bryant just laughed.
"Why’s that even a question? Of course he should be."