Kobe’s night: Let’s paint by numbers
Staples Center turns into ‘This is your life, Kobe Bryant,’ as his Nos. 8 and 24 are raised to the rafters
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant walked into Staples Center as he had done so many times before with camera lights popping, video rolling and social media giving the world a live view of it all.
The hoopla was warranted, as the five-time NBA champion was headed for a night at the Staples Center that was as special as when he won the 2010 NBA championship, dropped 81 points against the Toronto Raptors and scored 60 in his swan song. And as Bryant continued to stroll along — with a baby stroller — with his wife and three daughters, Lakers legend Magic Johnson stopped him to welcome him to the exclusive club. Well, Bryant was actually entering the club twice, as he made NBA history by getting his Nos. 8 and 24 Lakers jerseys retired to join nine other players’ jerseys in the rafters on Monday night.
“It’s not about the jerseys that are hanging up there for me,” Bryant said during his jersey retirement ceremony. “It’s about the jerseys that were hanging up there before. Without them, I couldn’t be here today. They inspired me to play the game at a high level.”
The excitement of a rare double jersey retirement was clear inside and outside the arena.
Outside there was “Kobe Land,” which included a Ferris wheel with Bryant’s picture on it, amusement park-type games, street vendors selling hot dogs wrapped in bacon, hip-hop music blaring from speakers and a gift shop for thousands of celebrating fans. Of course, there were fake commemorative T-shirts being sold out of duffel bags too.
The most expensive ticket Monday was selling for $30,969 for a courtside seat, according to the @StubHub folks outside of Staples Center. The cheapest seat lower level was $685.68.
Lakers fans received a special T-shirt honoring Bryant. Season-ticket holders were offered a Bryant bobblehead doll from his No. 8 or No. 24 days. Actor Jack Nicholson, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and other celebrities, fans in the Courtside Club seats and Lakers players were given a Kobe Bryant RoboJam doll in a special jersey retirement box.
“I sent the guy back to get the doll for my son,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was overheard saying before departing after the game.
Inside, Staples Center felt like “This is your life, Kobe Bryant.”
Former Lakers Ruben “The Kobe Stopper” Patterson, Carlos Boozer and Corie Blount were among the early arrivals. Boozer said he wouldn’t have missed this moment “for the world.” Shortly afterward, Bryant’s greatest teammate and rival in Shaquille O’Neal arrived. O’Neal and Bryant won three NBA championships before an ego clash caused the big fella to be traded to the Miami Heat in 2004.
Viewing the past like water under the bridge, O’Neal said he and Bryant were the best duo to ever play with the Lakers. Keep in mind that Hall of Famers Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were teammates, as were Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.
Other former Lakers were there, from Hall of Famer Gary Payton to former reserve center D.J. Mbenga to former starting point guard Derek Fisher to former center Slava Medvedenko.
“We will be remembered as the most enigmatic, controversial, one-two punch ever created, aka the best Laker duo ever,” O’Neal said. “That includes Magic and Kareem. Tell them I said it.”
O’Neal toted a backpack that included his computer so he could DJ a pregame party.
“He was really good,” Boozer said.
The Bryant pregame party was in a room that was transformed into a shrine to the 2008 NBA MVP. There were pictures of Bryant wearing Nos. 8 and 24 and also wearing No. 10 for USA Basketball. Video highlights of the 18-time NBA All-Star played on several big-screen televisions. Hall of Famers Bill Russell, who sat in the stands next to Abdul-Jabbar, and Allen Iverson also paid respect to the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. DJ O’Neal gave shoutouts to West and other players on the microphone.
“It was fun. Slava Medvedenko [came]. Devean George, who I haven’t seen since 2002. It was fun to come to this,” O’Neal said.
Bryant told the media pregame that he had not prepared a speech for the halftime ceremony. He wanted it all to come from the heart. Bryant also answered media questions in Spanish.
The best question came from longtime Los Angeles Lakers sports columnist Bill Plaschke. Bryant will likely at some point join Abdul-Jabbar, West, Johnson, O’Neal and the late Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn with a statue outside the Staples Center. And when that happens, Plaschke asked, would Bryant prefer that the jersey on the statue wear No. 24 or 8?
Bryant ended up conceding No. 24, which was worn in the latter part of his career, when he fought through injuries and aging to win back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010, recovered from a torn Achilles tendon and scored 60 in his final game despite being in pain.
“It’s really, really tough for me,” the 39-year-old Bryant said. “Twenty-four was more challenging. I tend to gravitate to things that were harder to do.”
Bryant, in a casket-sharp black suit, white dress shirt and tie, sat on the sideline at center court with his wife, Vanessa, and his three daughters as the Lakers and Golden State Warriors tipped off without injured All-Stars Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. Green, who is working through a shoulder injury, told The Undefeated he made the trek to pay respect to Bryant and watch the halftime ceremony.
What impressed Green the most about Bryant during his playing days? His competitive fire.
“This is something I definitely wanted to see,” Green said. “It’s really the only reason I made this trip was to see Kobe get his jersey retired. Kobe is one of two players I was starstruck by when I got to the NBA. To be there for this moment, 8 and 24, it’s a special moment.
“Kobe kind of transcended the game. Everyone was talking about the next Mike [Jordan]. He took that on his shoulders, embraced it and went after it. Just the mentality he had, the way he treated his body and took care of himself, it’s a special thing. Every game he took it do-or-die, life or death.”
The Lakers played several video tributes during the game that included former teammates and current players showing love to Bryant. The video that stood out the most was a star-studded production that included words from current NBA standouts LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Dwyane Wade, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers and former NBA All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Gilbert Arenas.
“You knew when you played against 8 or 24, you had to be ready,” James said in the video.
It’s no secret the Lakers and their rival Boston Celtics hate each other. Quietly in attendance was Bryant’s former rival and Celtics great Paul Pierce. Pierce and the Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. Rivers, a former Celtics head coach, mentioned that during one of the video tributes as Lakers fans booed. But Bryant and the Lakers got revenge during the 2010 NBA Finals.
Pierce is getting his Celtics No. 34 jersey retired in Boston on Feb. 11 against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He got some tips for his day.
“Kobe really defined the era that I played in,” Pierce said. “Even though he’s a Laker and I am a Celtic, I will admire Kobe. He really fueled a generation. Inspired a generation. It’s out of respect just having the opportunity to play against him in two Finals. And without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at.
“I’m coming out here seeing how he is doing because mine is coming up. I’ll probably take some notes.”
With 1:43 remaining in the second quarter, one of Bryant’s security guards went to his half-court seat to take the star of the show behind the scenes before the jersey retirement ceremony started. The Warriors went into halftime with a 57-53 lead. Chants of “Kobe … Kobe …” and “MVP … MVP …” echoed throughout the sold-out arena as the anticipation rose.
Shortly after the Warriors and Lakers departed to their locker rooms, a short sketch cartoon film in Bryant’s honor called Dear Basketball played on the JumboTron. Bryant narrated the video, which told his story as a young boy who fell in love with basketball and worked hard to become an NBA star. The piece ended with Bryant saying, “Love you always, Kobe.”
Next, Johnson and Lakers controlling owner and president Jeanie Buss represented the franchise by praising Bryant. What stood out was the Lakers’ relatively new president of basketball operations calling Bryant the greatest Laker who ever lived.
“We’re here to celebrate the greatest who ever wore the purple and gold,” Johnson said. “For 20 years, he thrilled us. He made us scratch our heads and say, ‘What did we just see? What did we just witness?’ And, he gave us five NBA championships. Let me see, Kobe. You gave us three [titles] with No. 8 and two with 24.”
Johnson also told Bryant that his strong voice is still needed in today’s tense racial climate in America.
“The next thing, Kobe, is this, brotha: We need you right now. When I look into this audience, there are all races of people coming together cheering you on for 20 years. And this country needs to come together. And you were able to bring us together in the city of Los Angeles for 20 years, so we thank you for that,” Johnson said.
After speeches from Johnson and Buss, it was finally time for Bryant to see his jerseys. The two-time NBA Finals MVP stood in appreciation of his hard work as Nos. 8 and No. 24 were unveiled from above. Bryant gave a quick speech that lasted four minutes in which he thanked the Lakers organization, the former stars, his teammates, the media and the fans. The four-time NBA All-Star Game MVP saved his most personal words for last, as he thanked his wife for giving him extra motivation and offered words of wisdom to daughters Natalia, Gianna and toddler Bianka.
“If you do the work and work hard enough, dreams come true,” Bryant said. “You know that, and we all know that. But, hopefully, what you get from tonight is the understanding that those times when you get up early and you work hard, those times where you stay up late and you work hard, those times where you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you push yourself and you do anyway … that is actually the dream. That’s the dream.
“It’s not a destination. It’s a journey. If you guys can understand that, then what you will see happen is you won’t accomplish your dreams. Your dreams won’t come true. Something greater will. If you guys can understand that, then I’m doing my job as a father.”
Bryant concluded his speech by saying, “Thank you, guys, so much. Love you. Mamba out.” He took pictures with his framed retired jerseys with Johnson, Buss and his family. Then he turned around to a large basketball family waiting to shower him with respect. The two-time Olympic gold medalist received hugs from a number of his former teammates, including O’Neal and Fisher; current members of the Lakers and Warriors, such as Los Angeles rookie Lonzo Ball and Warriors forward Durant; former players Russell, Iverson, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy; and former Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Durant said. “It almost got me choked up to see so many basketball players on the court.”
Bryant was back sitting courtside in the second half as the Lakers had the ball with the score tied at 102 with five seconds left. Pope, however, missed a 26-foot 3-pointer that would have been the winning shot during Bryant’s big night. The Lakers don’t have anyone who can hit big shots like the two-time NBA scoring champion used to.
So Mamba was out, as he and his family walked away smiling in appreciation before the Lakers went on to lose another game, 116-114, without him. After enjoying a family reunion of sorts, he and the Lakers Nation departed from a night they will never forget.