HOUSTON, TX — Love him or hate him, NBA fans are going to miss watching the great Kobe Bryant do his thing when he calls it quits after this season.
After spending the last 48 hours with Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on his farewell tour, one gets to see up close how much the greatest Laker of all time is respected by fans, peers and coaches around the league, while also seeing why his 20th season will be his last.
With the Lakers scheduled to return one more time to the cities of San Antonio and Houston, Bryant was able to cap off the first leg of his farewell tour, consisting of playing eight games in 12 days, in a smooth, peaceful fashion.
Having already knocked out six Eastern Conference cities where Bryant will never play again, including his beloved hometown of Philadelphia, it’s easy to see why the Lakers’ longest road trip since a nine-game trip from Jan. 31, 2007 to Feb. 13, 2008 has been the most overwhelming and emotional of Bryant’s historic career.
“It’s been crazy, man. It’s been different, being on the road and experiencing [that],” Bryant said in Houston at his postgame 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 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 pregame warmups until he came out of the game for good.
For Bryant’s longtime teammate Metta World Peace, who’s the only player on the roster to win a title with him, the positive reception Kobe 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 legit championship aspirations, one would think players on those respective teams would take offense that their loyal fan bases are in essence rooting against them. But they’re not, because just like the fans, the players and coaches know how special this is.
“I was chanting his name, too,” Rockets guard James Harden said Saturday after his team beat the Lakers, 126-97. “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 and at as high a level as his body will let him, Bryant didn’t attend shootaround either day. While others were getting up shots, the retiring Bryant was getting his body stretched and worked on so that he could leave a positive, lasting impression on those who will probably never see him play live again.
Bryant’s pregame work paid off in Houston, as he was able to follow his 12-point performance on 5-of-12 shooting in San Antonio with a 25-point, seven-rebound and six-assist performance against the Rockets to close out the grueling road trip on a positive individual note.
“I have no idea,” Scott said when asked about how Kobe did it. “I swear to God, I wish I knew. We talked about that earlier that this was on a back-to-back game and he seems to play better, but I don’t understand it.”
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.”
In the end, my advice to all sports fans is simple: enjoy Kobe and his greatness. You’re not going to see a player like him again anytime soon, no matter who you root for.