Kobe Bryant's final game: 'It hasn't really hit me yet'
Has it really been 20 years?
On Wednesday, Kobe Bryant will take the floor as an NBA player for the final time. At 37, he has played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five championships. The Lakers have the home court advantage against the Utah Jazz at 10:30 p.m. ET.
After his final road game Monday, Bryant described how much it has meant to have the career he's had in a Lakers' uniform.
"It means everything," the Philadelphia native and likely future Hall of Famer said. "I grew up a die-hard Laker fan. It's like a dream come true, for a kid to grow up, play for his favorite team and play here for 20 years, his entire career. I've seen the city grow. I've seen the city develop and vice versa. There's no place I'd rather end my career.” Bryant announced this season would be his last in a poignant letter written in the form of a poem on The Players' Tribune in November.
"This season is all I have left to give," he wrote in "Dear Basketball." "My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it's time to say goodbye.
"And that's OK. I'm ready to let you go.”
Looking backThe Charlotte Hornets drafted Bryant as the 13th pick of the 1996 NBA draft after he entered the league straight out of high school. He was traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. What followed was a career with a list of achievements so exhaustive, it has its own Wikipedia page.
A quick look at some of Bryant's accomplishments:
• Third all-time scorer in total points, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone.
Scored 81 points on January 22, 2006, against the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest total in NBA history. Only Wilt Chamberlain (100) has scored more in a game.
• Won five NBA championships, 2000-2002 and 2009-2010.
• Won two Olympic gold medals -- in 2008 and 2012.
• NBA MVP in 2008.
• 18 All-Star selections.
• Two-time NBA scoring champion (2006, 2007).
• Four-time NBA All-Star Game MVP.
Staying with one team for an entire career is rare. Staying on one team for a 20-year career? That's extraordinary.
According to ESPN's Arash Markazi, just 11 players across the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL have done so. Kobe's career with the Lakers compares to the likes of Derek Jeter with the New York Yankees, the late Tony Gwynn with the San Diego Padres, Cal Ripken Jr. with the Baltimore Orioles and Steve Yzerman with the Detroit Red Wings.
Today's Lakers are a mess
It has been tough during Bryant's farewell tour.
The Lakers' season has been nothing short of abysmal. Young and rebuilding, it has lost 65 games, the most in its 68-year franchise history. And some of the defeats have been really bad -- the Jazz downed the team by 48 points on March 28, tying for the largest loss in the Lakers' history. A fan pays tribute to Bryant's long career during Monday's game against Oklahoma City.
Additionally, Bryant's numbers have dipped. This season has been his worst shooting year in terms of field-goal percentage. Injuries have slowed him down.
For three consecutive years, his season was ended by injury. There was the ruptured Achilles tendon in April 2013. In 2014, he missed all but six games after breaking a bone near his left knee. And then a torn right rotator cuff in January 2015 required surgery.
And while he's played through injuries in the past, the wear and tear has become evident, with an occasional night off needed for rest. But as the end has approached, Bryant has done his best to play through pain so fans across the country can see him one last time.
That ends Wednesday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
End of an era
Bryant has been a huge draw at home and on the road. Throughout the season, he has received gifts, video tributes and standing ovations from the opposing crowd.
Monday was no different in Oklahoma City, Bryant's final road game. While he looked like he was in his prime in the first quarter with 13 points, he didn't score the rest of the night in what was another blowout loss for the Lakers, 112-79.
Bryant fans came out to Chesapeake Energy Arena in droves. Even when the game was out of reach, the crowd roared in the fourth quarter, "We want Kobe!" and "Kobe! Kobe!" Bryant, meanwhile, remained on the bench, smiling, with his shoulder wrapped.
He said after the game he had been tempted to come back in, but he knew he shouldn't.
"I couldn't move, man," Bryant said. "I played in the first quarter. I tried to give it all I had. ... I tried to loosen up in the locker room coming out for the second half. I couldn't move well at all.” Lakers head coach Byron Scott said he didn't consider putting Bryant back in the game for a curtain call, instead looking ahead to Los Angeles.
"I wasn't thinking about it at all," Scott said. "We were down 30 points. I wasn't going to put him in for a minute. At the six-minute mark, or something like that, in the third quarter, and he was coming toward the sideline, and I asked him how he felt. He was kind of like, `I'm all right.' I said, `Well, let's just end this right now and just get you ready for Wednesday.' There was no argument there whatsoever. He just knew that at that particular time he was done."
Will Bryant keep his emotions in check in his final game? Asked in Oklahoma City about his feelings heading into Wednesday, he said he wasn't sure but he feels excited and looks forward to lacing up one more time.
"Tough to say," Bryant said. "We'll see Wednesday. So far I've been pretty cool about everything. I've been very thankful about everything, been very happy about everything. It hasn't really hit me yet. We'll see if it does."