Kobe Bryant plays the last game of his unique career for the Los Angeles Lakers. With him goes a type of player that hardly exists anymore.
Sweating until the end: Kobe Bryant at the game last Monday Photo: dpa
"I’m looking forward to being there for his farewell. It will be an unforgettable moment," says Shaquille O’Neal. When Wednesday Kobe Bryant plays the last game of his great career for the Lakers at Los Angeles’ home Staples Center against the Utah Jazz, the whole evening will be dominated by the 37-year-old – as, in fact, it has been all season. The best player of his generation, the preeminent player of the era after uber-player Michael Jordan, is ending his career.
"It was like I had relieved myself of a huge burden," Bryant says of his retirement announcement. "It was just the right decision." Ticket prices skyrocketed whenever Bryant made his last guest appearance with the Lakers in an opposing arena. For tonight’s final game, tickets for the better seats are trading for sums ranging from $700 to $30,000.
On Nov. 29, a few weeks into the season, Bryant announced he was ending his career. "This year is the last I can give to basketball," he declared in a poignant poem in the trade magazine Player’s Tribune. Athletically, Bryant has long been a shadow of great days in 2016 after several serious injuries in recent years – he scored only 16.9 points per game this season, his career average is 25.
Kobe" led his Lakers to five championships – three of them at the turn of the millennium as a duo with O’Neal. The 1.98-meter man won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team, plus countless individual awards and honors. "It’s sobering," sighs Dirk Nowitzki. "More and more of these warriors from the nineties are disappearing from the league. For all of us, it’s clearly coming to an end more and more. It’s just sad."
An unfathomable 81 points
With Bryant, the last shooting guard of the old style is also retiring: strong in the move to the basket, with his mind mostly on his own shot rather than on the pass to his teammate. Throughout his career, Bryant’s game has been criticized. He was too stubborn and didn’t trust his teammates enough. "I’d rather end up with zero goals on 30 attempts than zero goals on nine attempts," he once confessed.
Long since history in times of all-rounders like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Draymond Green, who blur the boundaries between the different positions with their versatile play. Only James Harden of the Houston Rockets is still a similar type of player. Bryant, meanwhile, was far from being a one-dimensional player, also strong in passing and defense. But first and foremost, he was always a point guard. On January 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, a mark that is almost unimaginable in today’s basketball. Only league icon Wilt Chamberlain was more successful in 19 points.
No player came as close to the great Michael Jordan as Kobe Bryant.
Just a few days ago, the Bryant of old flashed in the game against Houston. "Actually, I’d better not do that anymore," the Lakers legend explained, shaking his head. "But I’m doing it anyway." He had just scored another 35 points.
Motivation from advance praise
"Fans look at your titles and think ‘What a great player,’" NBA great Jerry West said recently before Bryant’s final game with the Golden State Warriors, "but I’m not sure they really understand that incredible drive that made you who you are today." That drive that gave NBA Kobe Bryant an aura all his own over two decades. West – a legendary Lakers player himself – had brought the then 17-year-old to California in 1996 as the club’s manager.
Many players have been labeled "the next Jordan" and have failed to live up to expectations, but Bryant drew motivation from the praise he received. With success: no player in basketball history came so close to the great "MJ" in character and style of play. "Kobe, you were always like a little brother to me," Jordan confessed.
Like Jordan, Bryant always demanded the impossible from himself and his teammates. The great coach Phil Jackson – who won six championships with Jordan on the Chicago Bulls – once called him "untrainable. Just a few months ago, as a guest on late-night talker Jimmy Kimmel, the then-injured Bryant dismissed his young teammates with a look of disdain after viewing a one-timer – they had over-celebrated one of the rare victories. "The torch doesn’t just get passed," he said of potential replacements on the Lakers squad – 2015/16 was the club’s worst season, the team the second-worst in the league. "You have to earn it," he said.
"I expect you to score 50 points in your last game," O’Neal let Bryant know. I wouldn’t put it past him.