“I can’t believe how fast twenty years went by.”
On a night where NBA history was being broken in Oakland, another night far more memorable took place right down the California coast.
Kobe Bryant was playing his last game as a Los Angeles Laker.
As would be expected, L.A. rolled out all the pomp and circumstance for the last stop on Kobe’s season-long, retirement tour. The faces in the crowd included Jay-Z, Kanye West, Jack Nicholson, Magic Johnson, former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, Arsenio Hall, David Beckham and countless other Tinsel town icons.
They didn’t leave disappointed for Kobe’s final bow included a sixty point outing. It was just Kobe being Kobe. For one last night, he was magical.
I’ve never been a huge Kobe Bryant fan. It’s not that I ever disrespected his talent. I was just of the Michael generation. Despite his appeal to an entire albeit next generation, Kobe was the anti-hero, the man trying to chip away at the legacy Mike built. It was a Beatles-Rolling Stones dynamic. You couldn’t root for both.
It didn’t take long for Kobe to become the next generation’s Michael Jordan. Perhaps the label and comparisons were unfair, however, of all the “the next Michael’s,” Kobe fit the bill better than any.
Kobe was a thinking man’s basketball player, perhaps even more so than Michael. Kobe Bryant saw far more basketball as a lad than Michael. Plus he watched Michael, studied him and wanted what he had more than anything. The son of an NBA great, Kobe was cut from the same cutthroat cloth as his Hall of Fame predecessors.
But Wednesday night, we saw a different, far more likeable Kobe, a man who humbly embraced the legacy he worked tirelessly to create. He laughed, smiled and giggled with the press. It was his final exhale. He showed his true colors, not only in his final game but in the press conference thereafter. He showed a side of himself we don’t always see, the guard’s guard down. One shrewd reporter asked about his persona, his “joyous letting go” to which Bryant responded “I’m both, just like everybody in this room. It’s a very simple concept when you think about it. We all have a little hero and villain inside of us. It depends on perspective.”
In his final night, Kobe became likeable even for the haters. If you’re a basketball fan, you couldn’t help but tear up for the hordes of adoring fans, and entertainers, who appreciated for one last time how HE entertained THEM.
Michael may have done his thing in Chicago but Kobe did his in Los Angeles where the pressure to win is much greater.
L.A. meant “Showtime.” Magic Johnson made sure of that. Kobe Bryant solidified that over his entire career and on his final night. The Warriors winning 73 games was a foregone conclusion. Kobe scoring 60 points was not. That, in his twentieth season, was much more must see TV
Kobe’s effort and will to win could never be questioned. And that’s all a fan can really ask for. Down 96-95, Kobe rolled off a screen to take his final shot of the game, of his career. He made it. Of course he did. His team took the lead for his and their final time.
He ended up with sixty. Of course he did. In a land where the Hollywood script reigns supreme, this ending could not have been any better although if you had asked Kobe, a sixth championship would have been far more apt.
Kobe’s no Michael Jordan. No one is. I’m not here to tell you where he ranks among the NBA’s or even the Lakers all-time greats. What he was was one of the game’s all-time competitors, its third leading scorer all with the same franchise and that demands respect.
It’s weird to see Kobe getting old. He was always the next thing, the torch bearer. Someone had to carry that torch. Without Michael, there would have been no Kobe Bryant. Without Kobe Bryant there would be no next generation.
So like we saw Kobe finally soften his stance, perhaps I have as well. In the end, we see a man at peace with himself and his decision to finally step away from the game that defined him. The NBA is better for having him as a part of it. To use a far too trite sports expression, he left everything on the floor until his very last minute.
Last night’s performance was something to watch and likely something we won’t see again for a very long time.
Until the next Kobe Bryant.