November 29, 2015

MIAMI (AP) The first time Shane Battier was involved in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, he intercepted one of Kobe Bryant's passes in the final moments to help seal the victory.

When they met a few weeks later, Bryant sure seemed like he remembered.

Bryant needed only 34 minutes to score 56 points on the then-rookie, something Battier never forgot.

''Pushed me to be better more than any player I've faced,'' Battier wrote on Twitter not long after Bryant revealed that this season, as many expected, will be his finale with the Los Angeles Lakers. ''He has my ultimate hoops respect.''

Sentiments like those weren't hard to find Sunday night as many in the sports world reacted to the looming end of Bryant's 20-year career with the Lakers. The season goes until at least April, and Bryant remains hopeful of being selected to play for the U.S. Olympic Team at the Rio Games next summer. But now it's official: Bryant's final days as a professional basketball player have arrived.

''Hope (Bryant) receives (a) standing ovation in every city!'' NBA veteran Caron Butler of the Sacramento Kings posted on his social media accounts. ''One of the best to ever do it.''

Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets said Bryant was the only NBA player he ever idolized. Stephon Marbury - who was taken No. 4 in the 1996 NBA draft, nine spots before Bryant - called Bryant ''the best of the NBA Golden Class of `96.'' NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lauded what he called Bryant's ''relentless work ethic,'' adding that the five-time NBA champion ''is one of the greatest players in the history of our game.''

In New York, after Houston topped the Knicks, Rockets guard James Harden called Bryant a ''legend.''

''He's a warrior. He's a competitor. I don't think there will be another guy like him,'' Harden said. ''The way he did it, the way he willed his teammates to victories, championships, things like that, he was a great story.''

Bryant will leave the game as its No. 3 career scorer, with at least 17 All-Star appearances - it's hard to imagine fans not wanting him in Toronto next February for a swan song - and with at least two Olympic gold medals.

''I was honored to have you as a teammate,'' said Olympic hurdler and bobsledder Lolo Jones, who posted a photo of her and Bryant posing together in their opening ceremony attire from the 2012 London Games.

Bryant has struggled this season, and the Lakers are mired at the bottom of the Western Conference. Miami guard Dwyane Wade said Sunday, prior to Bryant's announcement, that it's been difficult to watch ''one of the absolute greatest competitors go through this.''

''You can put a team around a guy to help a guy, especially late in his career,'' Wade told The Associated Press. ''They're just not in position right now to do that. He's won five championships, so no one feels bad for him from that standpoint. But from a standpoint of seeing one of this era's greatest players go out in a rebuilding process, it's tough.''

Starting Tuesday in Philadelphia, Bryant's hometown, the Lakers will play eight straight games away from Los Angeles. He'll make his final appearances as an opponent in Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and Detroit - that is, provided he plays in them all - in the coming week alone. His last game in Boston, where the basketball-savvy fans have long loathed the Lakers but will almost surely salute Bryant in his finale there, is Dec. 30.

Bryant hasn't wanted opposing teams to make any special fuss about what just about everyone suspected was his final lap around the league. He might not be able to stop it any longer.

''I never thought that he'd ever retire. He seemed like he would play forever,'' Memphis guard Mike Conley said Sunday. ''Obviously, he's one of the greatest to ever do it. It's hard to see him go, of all people, because he's been etched in the NBA for so long, since I was little. A guy you really look up to, and you just wish him the best going forward in the future.''

Battier played at Duke as a collegian, won two championships with the Miami Heat as a pro, and seemed to continually draw the toughest defensive matchups throughout his career.

So when he paid Bryant the ultimate compliment, it was significant.

''Kobe is the greatest competitor I have ever faced,'' Battier said. ''I am glad he's found peace. I don't know if we'll see another one like him.''

---

AP freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee contributed.

You May Like