LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant is down to one last shot, and everybody knows he’s going to take it.
After two decades spent dazzling the world, Bryant will end his basketball career at home with the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. He’ll walk off the court in front of his devoted fans in the building where he hung five championship banners.
He retires this week as the third-leading scorer in league history. Nobody ever got to spend 20 seasons with one NBA team before the 37-year-old Bryant, and he intends to thank Los Angeles with one last display of his transcendent talent.
“It means everything” to finish at home, Bryant said.
“I grew up a die-hard Laker fan, so it’s like a dream come true for a kid to grow up and play for his favorite team, and play here for 20 years, his entire career,” he added. “I’ve seen the city grow. I’ve seen the city develop, and vice versa. There’s no place I’d rather end my career.”
Tickets are reselling for hefty sums, and merchandise commemorating the day is moving briskly. Fans without seats will gather downtown to show love for Bryant, a globally admired athlete who both fearlessly represented and strongly resembled LA.
Flashy. Confident. Clever. Combative. Bursting with ambition.
And always entertaining.
“I’ve grown up in front of this crowd from the age of 17,” Bryant said. “A lot of faces that I saw in the crowd in my very first game are still here. That’s very special. Kids that are sitting there now, that were kids when I first came in, now come to the game with their kids. You know, that’s pretty cool to see.”
While Bryant’s fellow Nike athletes around the globe wear shoes honoring the event they’ve dubbed “Mamba Day,” the Lakers will attempt to send Bryant out in style against the Utah Jazz, who could be eliminated from the playoff race shortly before tipoff.
Coach Byron Scott expects Bryant to play more than 37 minutes, and Kobe’s teammates will be feeding the ball to him on practically every possession — admittedly not much of a change from most games during this otherwise horrific season.
With two 30-point performances this month, Bryant has proven he’s still capable. He’ll have every opportunity to run up the score one last time.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Scott said. “We got a chance to celebrate one of the greatest to ever play the game this season, and I think we did it the right way.”
Although some things went very wrong, they turned out all right for Kobe.
Bryant said last week that every season is a failure unless it ends with a title. The 15th such failure of his career has been comically bad, yet the ineptitude of the worst team in Lakers history (16-65) actually has made it easier to enjoy his farewell tour.
“We’re not playing for a championship, and I’m pretty black-and-white on where I stand with that sort of stuff,” Bryant said. “I’ve allowed myself to take the blinders off and enjoy the fans, enjoy the crowd. Laugh a little bit more. Engage a little bit more.”
Indeed, the Lakers’ recent games effectively have been tribute evenings for Bryant, with opponents shaking his hand and lining up for turns to guard a player who profoundly inspired most of the current NBA.
“It is hard to be great for that long,” said Miami’s Dwyane Wade, his U.S. Olympic teammate. “He has been great for maybe 19 out of 20 years. To do it at that level for so many years, with guys coming after you, I have a tremendous amount of respect for that. He’s had a lot of injuries along the way, and he just came back stronger and stronger.”
When Bryant was asked to name his greatest basketball accomplishment Monday, he didn’t cite his rings. Instead, he chose his ability to find the motivation to return from three consecutive season-ending injuries from 2013-15.
Bryant hasn’t had a major health setback this season, although he sat out 16 games, constantly iced his joints, rarely practiced and hardly ever attended morning shootarounds.
He reached the finish line on his feet.
“He didn’t take nights off,” Scott said. “I think his competitive nature and the way he went about his business gained him a lot of respect around the world.”
Scott calls Bryant’s farewell tour “much-deserved and much-needed.” He has even fantasized about the perfect walk-away moment for Bryant: A patented fallaway jumper in the final seconds of a tied game.
“I would love for that to be the ending of the story,” Scott said.
Bryant knows he can’t have an ideal finish because he isn’t playing for a championship in his final game. He won’t join Peyton Manning, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Russell, John Elway, Ray Bourque, David Robinson, John Wooden or the other sports icons who ended their careers at the pinnacle.
Instead, Bryant’s finale is the conclusion of a 20-year competition with himself.
One last time, Kobe just wants to play.
“For me, it’s coming out in front of the fans and competing hard, and playing against Utah and them not taking it easy at all,” Bryant said. “To me, that is the greatest form of competition. That’s the best last game to have. A very competitive one. A physical one. That’s the way basketball should be.”