- No one throws a party like the Lakers, especially when Kobe Bryant is the guest of honor. Monday night's jersey ceremony served as one final spectacle for the star that created so many in L.A. for 20 years.
LOS ANGELES — It was, quite literally, a circus, the street between Staples Center and LA Live transformed into a makeshift amusement park dubbed Kobeland, with Kobe baskets and Kobe cornhole boards, 17-foot inflatable Kobes and one “Kobe-inspired” Ferris Wheel that completed the downtown skyline. A Kobe hat made of ostrich leather with an 18-karat gold pin was listed by New Era for $5,824, a bargain compared to the courtside seats, though those did come with complimentary Kobe Robo Jam drones. A row deep, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and Bill Russell sat next to each other over a basket of nachos, Kareem making runs to the Chairman’s Lounge for bottles of water. Before the game, Shaquille O’Neal played DJ in a private club while Jeanie Buss raised the roof. During it, Allen Iverson mingled with Slava Medvedenko.
Even at 10–18, no one throws a party like the Lakers, especially when Bryant is the guest of honor. They toasted him when he announced his retirement in November 2015, when he played his last game in April 2016, and on all home dates in between, a farewell tour for the ages and the aged. But this is Kobeland, as it’s been for the past 20 years, and there's no such thing as too many speeches or montages or jersey numbers. The Lakers, as Jeanie’s father intended, don’t do understatement. They go grand, particularly if immortals are involved. Bryant strode to center-court at halftime Monday, accompanied by piano music and Magic Johnson. As his 8 and 24 were raised to the rafters, bracketing Chick Hearn’s purple microphone, a couple dozen former players lined the scorer’s table. One was Ruben Patterson, the supposed Kobe-stopper, hoping for one last charge—or at least a selfie.
The current Lakers watched from the corner of their bench, the Warriors from the corner of theirs. All night, tributes spooled across the Jumbotron during timeouts and players’ eyes wandered skyward, attention drifting from the huddle. This NBA generation reveres Bryant, as the last one did Michael Jordan and the next one will LeBron James. Nobody studied the screen more intently than Kevin Durant, who cradled the ball on the Warriors’ last possession of overtime, score tied. In many ways, Durant stands in contrast to Bryant, one famous for his solo act, the other for his super-team. But with Steph Curry and Draymond Green injured, Durant found himself reprising his one-on-one role in Oklahoma City. Back in the 2010 playoffs, after the Lakers vanquished the Thunder in the first round, Bryant chased down Durant and Russell Westbrook in a Chesapeake Energy Arena hallway and told them they were “bad motherf------,” forever his highest form of praise. Durant would not surrender the ball in OT, a final nod to Bryant, and he drained a 22-footer for the game-winner.
“There are so many kids that picked up a basketball because of him,” Durant said. “That’s what we do it for.”
Bryant didn’t see Durant’s dagger, bailing his courtside seat at the end of regulation, after bidding goodbye to his old squad and pounding Lonzo Ball four times on the chest. Ball is a James acolyte, but even he swapped out his ZO2s on Monday for a pair of Kobes, showing respect big baller style. Record aside, the Lakers have moved on from Bryant, which is not to imply they’ve replaced the scoring or the winning. At this point, they’ve only replaced the circus, putting the Balls under the big top instead of Bryant. Monday was a reminder, as overwrought as the Kobeland experience could be, there was always plenty of substance to go along with the spectacle: five championships, 33,000 points, meticulous footwork and incomparable shot-making. The Balls, in less than a year, have ably filled the amusement vacuum. The basketball void, however, is harder to replenish. “The next chapter is coming out of the darkness of the Kobe era,” coach Luke Walton said. “It’s not easy. It’s about learning how to win again.”
Bryant spoke a lot Monday about legacy, a pet topic, and how a man is judged by his influence on those who come afterward. The Lakers say they sense his presence, the raised bar, even if he is not around much. His former agent, Rob Pelinka, is their general manager and it’s no stretch to imagine Bryant in recruiting meetings next summer when the organization attempts to woo two max-salary free agents. In a press conference that alternated between English, Spanish and Italian—all in the first five questions—Bryant described the day-to-day of his retirement: waking up at 4 a.m., working out at 5, dropping his daughters off at school, going to work for his production company, picking the girls up, then hitting youth volleyball or basketball or soccer practices. He recalled friends who initially cautioned against depression and anger. “What the f---?” Bryant replied. “I’m good.” Even his peers occasionally forgot he was more than the mythical character he created, that jersey-chewing maniac who could not survive without a ball in his hands.
That character was captivating, the center of the circus, but Kobe Bryant doesn’t bear much resemblance anymore. When he pulled up to his old home Monday, hidden behind Kobeland and its Ferris Wheel, he reacted the way any stranger would. “What?” he said, and by the time reality registered, his car was gone.