PHILADELPHIA — Yes, the Sixers were playing the Lakers, and by the final buzzer there would be a winner and a loser, but did the outcome matter? Not really. Not unless you were betting on the game or thinking about June draft picks. Both teams are bad and some day, if patterns hold, they’ll be good again. The game—played in a cookie-cutter oval that was named first for one bank, then another, followed by a third and now a fourth (Wells Fargo)—was significant for only one reason: Kobe Bryant was coming home, to play a final game in an NBA uniform in the city where he was born and, in spurts, raised.
As of Tuesday night, at game time, his age was 37 years, three months and nine days. His travel time to the 7 p.m. start was precisely that long, no matter what app you used. His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, who played for the Golden State Warriors, the Sixers and four teams in Italy, says Kobe was NBA-bound since his birth, on Aug. 23, 1978. Kobe himself is more circumspect. He’ll tell you his plan to play in the NBA settled in his mind at age three.
And now, and for the next five months, comes his slow fade-away: the standing ovations, the parting gifts, the old man’s hands in the air as the lights go out, making languid waves to his fans and frenemies. Kobe will find a second act, or not. Magic Johnson was saying the other day that Kobe should buy a basketball team, or part of one. But his life to date has been playing the game and that chapter of it—in which the shooting guard, running up and down on a hot, brightly-lit planked floor, lofts twos and threes above the splayed fingers of the best players in the world—is coming to a close. Twenty seasons in the NBA. Where did it go? It was an eye-blink.
He had his IPO, in a manner of speaking, in the Lower Merion High School gym on April 29, 1996. Kobe Bryant, a 17-year-old senior, told a packed house, “I have decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.” He had sunglasses on top of his shaved head and he wore a sport coat with shoulder pads he apparently borrowed from an Aces linebacker. There must be a clip of that scene somewhere on the Internet, but I don’t need it. I was there and two decades later, on the inside of my eyelids, I can see the man-child tilting his head and putting his fingers to his chin before revealing the news we had all been expecting. He was already pure theater. It’s a fine line, the one that separates the actor and the athlete. The buzzer sounds, the curtain falls, and we sit there in the dark, having endured various emotional blows for two hours. Right? All the while, one question repeats again and again: What will happen in the end? Until there is no next.
I have talked to Kobe only once, on a warm day in June in 1995. I was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Kobe had just finished his junior year at Lower Merion High. He was at a basketball camp for elite high school players held on the Princeton campus. I somehow knew his SAT score (1080) and that he spoke fluent Italian. His scoring exploits were in the back pages of our local papers. I remember driving to Princeton and thinking that he could become an NCAA basketball legend, at Stanford or UCLA or Duke, someplace where he could get a meaningful degree and play meaningful basketball. Maybe he’d even get a degree. Lew Alcindor had been a history major.
The camp included visiting speakers. Kobe, during a break, told me about one of them: "They brought this woman in, and she was beautiful, and then she said, 'I'm HIV-positive,' and everybody's eyes opened really wide. I think that's going to be a wake-up call to a lot of people here. People were talking about it later. A girl could look so beautiful, like Janet Jackson or Cindy Crawford, and she could have AIDS." It seemed impossible that he was 16. Talk about having tools.
The first sport the out-of-towner thinks about is the Eagles, but Philadelphia has always been a basketball town. On Monday night, the Lakers checked into their hotel—the old-world Ritz Carlton, in a converted bank on South Broad Street—and fans were waiting for them, even though that wasn’t the Team Showtime’s regular hotel. (The old Four Seasons has closed and a new one is being built.) Kobe, dressed for the gym in a top from the Spiderman colleciton, headed out to Larry’s Cheesesteaks, on the St. Joseph’s University campus, just off City Ave. Lower Merion High is a mile or two west of Larry’s, on the suburban side of City Ave. Overbrook High, where Wilt Chamberlain went to school, is about a mile south, within the city limits.
Kobe knows all the best steak shops in town—Chubby’s, Pat’s, Dalessandro's, but he settled on Larry’s while in high school and has stayed loyal to it, the way a Frenchman might stay loyal to a particular Cote du Rhone. He had one foot in the suburbs and the other in the city and that’s always been part of his appeal.
He can tell you the difference between the Philadelphia’s Catholic League basketball (officials on your ass) and Public League basketball (loose zones and soft rims). His father played at Bartram High and then for La Salle. City ball. Kobe knew Big Five basketball (Penn, Villanova, St. Joe’s, Temple and La Salle). He knew the city’s great coaches: John Chaney at Temple, Dan Dougherty at Episcopal, Speedy Morris at La Salle, Billy Cunningham at the Spectrum, in the Sixers’ heyday. Jellybean, of course, did, too. Kobe’s talent didn’t come from nowhere. Of course not. Talent like that never does.
On Tuesday morning, the Lakers had an 11 a.m. shootaround at Temple, at the Liacouras Center, where the Owls play. The practice was closed to reporters but the players and the team’s head coach, Byron Scott, would be available when the short workout was over. As a general principle, attendance at shootarounds is mandatory, but the rules are different when you’ve been in the league for 20 years, when your body is beat-up, when you’ve announced your retirement and you’re about to play your final game in the city that made you.
There were heavy curtains blocking the walkways from the main corridor to the arena’s floor. I peeled one back and snuck a peak and there was a sight that will always make your heart skip a beat: of a dozen or so of the best basketball players in the world (even if their team’s record was 2-14), shooting free throws, running layup and rebounding drills, stretching, going through the paces of everyday NBA life.
At 11:45 a.m., dozens of reporters and TV cameramen—mostly TV cameramen—were ushered onto the floor. A player, the Lakers center Roy Hibbert, turned to a teammate and said loudly and repeatedly, “They’re going to be thoroughly disappointed.” Kobe was not in the house. Somebody asked Hibbert if he had a favorite cheesesteak spot. “I don’t have a favorite cheesesteak spot. I don’t eat cheesesteaks. I’m from D.C. I eat chicken wings with mumbo sauce.”
I asked Byron Scott about Jellybean. Joe Bryant's last season in the NBA was Scott's first. Kobe's first year in the league was Scott's last. He was one of Bryant's mentors in his rookie year with the Lakers, the only team Bryant has played for. "Sons of players tend to be either just like their fathers or the total opposites," the coach said. "Kobe was just the opposite." He was speaking in a basketball context. "I used to ask Jerry West about Jellybean. He was a good player, but one dimensional." Joe Bryant was a power forward and his main job was to get himself in spitting distance of the basket. "Kobe developed every part of his game. He's always had all the tools—a complete player." He is also, at 6'6", three inches shorter than his father. Scott thinks of Kobe as someone always trying to learn something. "On the team bus, he wasn't reading Sports Illustrated—he was reading Newsweek."
Five hours later, 60 or 70 reporters and TV cameramen gathered in a windowless meeting room, waiting for a 5 p.m. press conference. A deadening rain had persisted all though the dank workday, but the din of chatter in that room was loaded with life. This was not just another pre-game press conference. A minute or two before it was set to begin, word came that Kobe was on his way in and the room went still and silent. He stood at a lectern in a purple Lakers T-shirt and a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath and said, “I thought they’d give an old man a chair to sit in.” Before long, his mind was in a drift. He mentioned a favorite English teacher at Lower Merion, Jeanne Mastriano, whom he called his “muse.” He talked about his coach there, Gregg Downer. “He used to say all the time, `We play East Coast basketball. We’re steak-and-potatoes,’” Kobe said. “And I always understood that as being physical.” Kobe looked lean and fit and relaxed, as he has forever, despite all the various wounds, physical and otherwise. He talked about how his high school coach emphasized “the mid-range game. He used to take the ball rack and put it 10 feet away from the hoop and force me to one, two dribble, stop on a dime, and pull up and shoot." The art of the game. He talked about playing in the city’s Sonny Hill League one summer as an 11-year-old and not scoring a single point. Sonny Hill himself was in the house. He’s closing in on 80 but was moving through the underground corridors of the arena, dressed in a natty gray suit and gray fedora, with the vigor of a man half that age. For about 15 minutes there, Kobe talked and time stopped. He answered some questions in Spanish. It was beautiful.
Then they played a basketball game. A 2-14 team (the Lakers) versus an 0-18 team. It was Moses Malone Night at the Wells Fargo Arena. Moses never played for an 0-18 team. Dr. J was on hand, for Moses, originally, but for Kobe, too. He’s known him all his life, literally. The house was dark when Kobe was introduced and he received a short, intense standing ovation. In his pregame warm-up, amid a dozen or two-dozen hugs with various players and visitors, Bryant was holing shot after shot. Some warm-ups are better than others and this was exemplary. In the first 90 seconds of the game, Bryant put up four three-pointers and made three of them. He was running the court well. For about 10 minutes, we were seeing vintage Kobe basketball, or something close to it. It must have been the adrenaline talking. By the end of the game, the numbers told the same story they have for a couple years now. He played for 32 minutes and scored 20. But he was 7-of-26 from the field, 2-of-4 from the line, and philosophical and realistic after the game. The early threes were a gift.
"I could sense they were like `I really don't want to touch him,'” Kobe said, back in that same crowded room, about a half-hour after the Sixers posted their first win of the season, 103-91. Now he was wearing a long brown suit, a black tie and a white shirt with cufflinks and his initials monogrammed on the cuff. The team was heading by bus to Washington, D.C., and the players were dressed for travel. "I'm just playing possum because I know my legs ain't going to carry this energy for 48 minutes." He smiled ruefully.
Reporters were lobbing questions at him with an almost desperate energy. This was the first and the best of the last-chance post-game interviews. Kobe at home. The only one that will be more meaningful will be the true finale on April 13, at home, against the Utah Jazz. But the Utah Jazz are not the Philadelphia 76ers. Kobe’s father did not play for the Utah Jazz. Moses Malone and Dr. J. and Billy Cunningham did not play for the Utah Jazz. There are not ushers at the Staples Center that Kobe has known all his life. You cannot get a Larry’s cheesesteak in Los Angeles.
He spoke some more about the city that made him. "There's not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don't talk trash. Every park I went to was a bunch of trash-talkers. It teaches you how to have a thick skin."
A reporter who spoke English with a Japanese accent asked Bryant about his plans after basketball. He was named for a Japanese steak house.
“I don’t know,” Kobe Bryant said. “That’s the beauty of life. You don’t know how it’s going to end.”