Kobe Bryant will bow out from the NBA in front of a packed house in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, and the Lakers legend admits “it means everything” to finish his career at home.
After 20 years and 1,566 games, the 37-year-old plays his last game as a professional against the Utah Jazz at the Staples Center on Wednesday. At the same time, 400 miles to the north, the Golden State Warriors will attempt to set a new NBA record of 73 single-season wins.
Wednesday promises to be an emotional evening.
“I grew up a die-hard Laker fan, so it’s like a dream come true for a kid to grow up and play for his favorite team, and play here for 20 years, his entire career,” Bryant said. “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 departs as the third-leading scorer in league history, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. LA Lakers fans have witnessed a master at work for almost two decades, and although the past two seasons have been grim for the franchise, Bryant intends to give his adopted city one final spectacle to savor.
Ticket prices at the Staples Center have risen to colossal levels. Good tickets for the game were going for about $2,000 late Tuesday, with the best seats in the house almost 10 times that much.
And the Staples Center is expecting a media onslaught. By Tuesday afternoon, between 400 and 500 journalists had been issued credentials for the game, said Lakers’ longtime publicist John Black, who called those figures “completely unprecedented” for a regular-season game. More than 60 international media members will be watching, too.
“For a regular-season game, that’s astronomical,” said NBA spokesman Tim Frank. “It could have been more, but we had obvious space limitations.”
More than two dozen of Bryant’s former teammates will be in attendance, including Shaquille O’Neal, who played on three title-winning teams in the 2000s. The pregame ceremony will include a three-minute tribute video, but there’ll be no public gift-giving: Bryant has forbidden it.
“I’ve grown up in front of this crowd from the age of 17,” Bryant said. “A lot of faces that I saw in the crowd in my very first game are still here. That’s very special. Kids that are sitting there now, that were kids when I first came in, now come to the game with their kids. You know, that’s pretty cool to see.”
Coach Byron Scott expects Bryant to play more than 37 minutes, and his Lakers team-mates have been told to look for their star player on every possession.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Scott said. “We got a chance to celebrate one of the greatest to ever play the game this season, and I think we did it the right way.”
The Lakers are 16-65, so win or lose, this will be the worst season in franchise history. Last year they went 21–61, which was bad enough, but this time out they’ve reached a new low. Wednesday night, however, is all about Kobe.
Scott said Bryant’s farewell tour was “much-deserved and much-needed.” Will Kobe depart in style by making his patented fadeaway jumper? “I would love for that to be the ending of the story,” Scott said.
The Jazz are still mathematically in the hunt for a playoff spot, but they need Sacramento to do them a favour. If the Rockets beat the Kings in Houston, Utah will finish outside the top eight regardless of the outcome in LA.
Bryant might not have the title-winning ending he dreamed of. But he’s happy just to play.
“For me, it’s coming out in front of the fans and competing hard, and playing against Utah and them not taking it easy at all,” Bryant said. “To me, that is the greatest form of competition. That’s the best last game to have. A very competitive one. A physical one. That’s the way basketball should be.”
This article was written by Tim Hill, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th April 2016 16.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010