Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2016

His Time Expiring, Kobe Turns Back The Clock

The ending was as fabulous as it was unexpected. If one squinted just a bit, it was more than enough to make one forget the recent past. A capacity crowd jammed into the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Just three short of 19,000 fans there for a game that was meaningless in the standings, the final match of the regular season for two teams already eliminated from the postseason. Despite failing to climb above .500, the Utah Jazz had stayed on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race in which Houston would claim the 8th and final spot at exactly 41-41 only by winning its final contest. But a loss at home two nights earlier had ended the visitors’ slim hopes of playing on into the spring. As for the home team, the Lakers were ending a woeful season, one in which they descended to the Conference’s cellar early on and never evidenced any intent to leave. When the NBA’s final regular season standings were published the following day, L.A.’s seventeen wins topped only the ten victories recorded by the misfits across the country in Philadelphia.

But standings and playoffs were the last things on the minds of the faithful dressed in variations of the Lakers purple and gold colors. They were there to say goodbye to Kobe Bryant, who for two decades had entertained and thrilled them through good seasons and bad, through championships and personal turmoil. If this year’s Lakers were dreadful, and if Bryant himself was often no better, it mattered not to those on hand. Indeed, if their team had been blown out and their hero tossed up nothing but air balls all night it would have made little difference. Wednesday night in Los Angeles was a celebration of one of the greatest hardcourt careers, a tribute to a player who played every one of his more than 1,500 regular and postseason games wearing the uniform of just one team.

It began when the Charlotte Hornets took Bryant with the 13th overall pick of the 1996 NBA Draft. Knowing that he would never sign with them, the Hornets had already agreed to trade their pick, the first guard to be drafted out of high school, to Los Angeles. With the swap in place it was the L.A.’s management who dictated the player to be taken when Charlotte went on the clock. Five days later the trade was official and Bryant’s parents cosigned his first NBA contract because he was not yet 18 years old.

By his second season he was the youngest All-Star starter in league history. Two years later, with Phil Jackson now the head coach, the Lakers won the first of Bryant’s five NBA championships. The second and third followed immediately, Bryant teaming with Shaquille O’Neal to form one of the greatest center – guard tandems ever. When the Lakers next captured the O’Brien Trophy in 2009 and 2010, O’Neal was gone and Bryant was the unquestioned leader of the team. In both the 2009 Finals against Orlando and the 2010 seven-game grudge match against arch-rival Boston, Bryant was named the Most Valuable Player.

In addition to the titles that can only come through a team effort, Bryant compiled a long list of personal statistics and records that set him apart. With eighteen straight elections as an All-Star, he was also named to the All-NBA team fifteen times and to the All-Defensive team twelve. He ranks third on the NBA’s career lists for both regular season and playoff scoring. His 33,643 regular season points tops the Lakers record book, just one of fifteen statistical categories in which Bryant is the career team leader.

A career in the spotlight is rarely blemish-free, and Bryant’s is no exception. There were feuds with O’Neal and Jackson, seasons largely lost to injuries, and most seriously, the off-court allegation of sexual assault in 2003. The case sharply changed the public’s view of Bryant, although in the end the criminal case was dropped.

But his greatest failing as a player was simply staying too long, a sin that he shares with more than a few of our athletic heroes. As was noted in this space last autumn, this season the Lakers were still running their offense through Bryant, despite the fact that he had become one of the worst offensive performers in the league. At the time his shooting percentage was just .311, last in the NBA among players with at least 150 field goal attempts. While that mark eventually improved to .358 that was still the lowest of Bryant’s career. This year’s number and his .373 percentage last season were the only two times that Bryant shot less than forty percent from the floor.

So one more sad performance would not have come as a surprise, though in truth no one in the stands would have minded. The Laker fans were just glad to be there for their long-time hero’s final game. It began as one would have expected. Midway through the first quarter Bryant had missed his first five shots and turned the ball over once. But then he hit a pullup jumper to tie the score at 6-6, and suddenly the years melted away.  The Lakers continued to feed the ball to their faded star all night long; in the end he would take fifty shots from the field. But now more of them were going in, including the next four after that first one that found the mark.

The Lakers trailed by two after one period and by fifteen at the break. But led by Bryant the home squad mounted a second half rally. For much of the final quarter everyone in the house was on their feet, cheering what was quickly becoming an epic final star turn. With just over three minutes to play and Utah leading by ten, Bryant seized the moment. A reverse layup, two free throws, a driving layup, a jumper, a three, and then with 31.6 ticks remaining, another pullup jumper that gave the Lakers the lead. With the final five field goal attempts of his career finding the net, Bryant added two more free throws at the 14.8 second mark to bring his scoring total for the night to sixty points, a total unmatched by any other player this NBA season.

Yes he stayed too long, so that in the end he was but a sad shadow of the player he had once been. Yes the Lakers are equally bad, a franchise that seems to have lost its way. But on the last night, as Kobe Bryant ran and shot and scored from all over the court, as he willed his team to one more victory, if those in the stands squinted just a little bit, they could do more than remember. They could actually see once again all that was glorious during a singular career.

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