AUBURN HILLS, MI — Kobe Bryant’s 20-year run at the Palace of Auburn Hills came to an end with a fizzle Sunday evening, not the bang that it probably deserved.
Bryant was a game-time decision because of a stomach virus, and a partisan crowd grew quiet when he didn’t join the rest of his teammates for the pregame warmup.
He eventually came out to a huge roar, but even by his low standards, it was an ugly night. Bryant missed his first nine shots and finished two for 15 in Detroit’s 111-91 rout of the Lakers.
“It was tough, because that’s the league’s ultimate competitor, and now he’s winding down,” Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson said. “It is going to feel really strange to play in a league next year that doesn’t have him in it.”
Kobe has never been a popular superstar, especially after the rape allegations in Colorado, but he’s always had a fan base in Detroit. On Sunday, Lakers purple-and-gold overwhelmed Detroit’s red-white-and-blue in one of the biggest crowds of the season.
Pistons P.A. announcer John Mason introduced the first four Los Angeles starters normally, but the lights went down for the fifth introduction. As the crowd stood and roared, Mason listed Bryant’s lengthy list of NBA achievements, culminating in being the third-leading scorer in league history.
In the 28 seasons at the Palace, it was one of the two biggest ovations a visiting player has ever received, matched only by Michael Jordan on his return with the Wizards.
“We had so many great battles here. I think I spent an entire year hearing that announcer yelling ‘Detroit Basketball,’ and the intensity of these fans was something I’ll never forget,” he said.
“Tonight was crazy – hearing my name chanted in Detroit is a beautiful feeling. It’s something I never thought I’d see.”
It’s been 11 years since Kobe heard cheers that loud in Auburn Hills, and on that occasion, they weren’t for him.
In 2004, Bryant’s miracle shot at the end of Game 2 meant the Lakers and Pistons came back to the Palace tied at one game each in the NBA Finals. That was the Los Angeles dream team, with Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. It didn’t work, though, as Malone and Payton were old, Kobe and Shaq couldn’t stand each other, and Jackson had given up the whole thing.
The Pistons won all three games in Detroit, clinching the title with a blowout in Game 5. Bryant was almost invisible, and the highlight of the night was the injured Malone being taunted by fans for not having won a championship before his daughter – Detroit Shock star Cheryl Ford.
Three years later, Kobe almost became a Piston. The teams agreed on a deal that would’ve sent Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and several draft choices to the Lakers for Bryant. Bryant vetoed the deal – he wanted to go to Chicago – and the Pistons ended up wrecking the franchise with a series of moves that started with trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson.
Bryant’s history in Detroit didn’t start in 2004, though, but nearly a decade earlier.
The first time I covered him wasn’t as a Laker, but as part of the East All-Stars in the 1996 Magic Johnson’s Roundball Classic. Before the game, the discussion wasn’t about Kobe Bryant, future Hall of Famer, but “Who’s this kid from Philly that thinks he’s going right to the NBA? I want to see this.”
That game was a lot of fun to cover, because we saw high school seniors who obviously had huge futures, like Rasheed Wallace, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce, and other hyped players who left us shaking our heads.
Felipe Lopez had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he even showed up at the game, but 40 minutes later, no one of us had any idea why. He was about the 10th-best player on the floor that day, and never had a major impact on college hoops or the NBA.
The year before Kobe, we’d seen our first kid that was going straight to the NBA. Kevin Garnett was obviously a star in the making, but there was a lot of talk about how he was only turning pro because he couldn’t get into college.
Of course, KG’s lack of college experience didn’t slow him, as he’s still building on one of the 10 greatest careers in NBA history, but we didn’t know that at the time – he was in the middle of his rookie season. Besides, Bryant wasn’t like that – he could’ve gotten into any school he chose. He just thought he had the talent to make the jump.
As we watched the game that night, a lot of skepticism vanished. Kobe didn’t take 30 shots and try to make the game all about him, something we had seen from both stars and kids who thought they were going to be stars. He certainly scored, and he threw down his share of nasty dunks, but he also passed the ball (really!) and played to win, not just to show off.
After the game, I was struck by his maturity – there wasn’t any braggadocio about how he was going to dominate the NBA and walk into the Hall of Fame. Of course, that’s what he’s done, but back in the spring of 1996, he talked about how he’d discussed the move with his father and a lot of other NBA players, and thought he was ready to take that step.
He was right. He took the step and kept going until he picked up five championships, two gold medals and a first-ballot spot in Springfield.
That was the player the Pistons fans honored Sunday night – the Kobe Bryant they cheered in the Olympics and took so much pride in beating in 2004, not the ghost who struggled to hit a jumper in a 20-point loss.