The goodbye tour finally says farewell.
Kobe Bryant will walk off the court one last time Wednesday, capping a 20-year career that included seven NBA Finals trips and five championships.
He used to be driven to catch Michael Jordan at six titles. It consumed him, bothered him, forced him to the local track on hot July days while the rest of the NBA partied in Las Vegas, the Bahamas and any other place that wouldn’t dare consider early-morning workouts.
The fact Bryant no longer cares about falling one championship short is a good indicator. It’s time to retire.
Tickets in secondary markets range from $700 to $10,000 for Wednesday’s game at Staples Center against Utah, the latter price not quite getting you a courtside seat.
Bryant, 37, played the role of ambassador since announcing his retirement intentions, cheered in enemy arenas that historically despised him (Philadelphia, Boston, San Antonio) and collecting special gifts by the armful.
His play has fallen off badly — he leads the Lakers in scoring at 16.9 points a game but is shooting a career-low 35.4% — and yet he’s been introspective and charming in interviews across the country with reporters.
The bizarre backdrop is the Lakers’ unsightly 16-65 record, the worst in the franchise’s long, successful history. Everybody around him says Bryant is “at peace” with his decision to retire, the losses no longer affecting him like they did in the past.
Where there used to be anger, there’s now appreciation.
“I’ve seen the city grow, I’ve seen the city develop and vice versa,” Bryant recently said wistfully.
About 25 of his former teammates will be there — from Shaquille O’Neal to DJ Mbenga — and the pregame ceremony will include a three-minute tribute video but no public display of gifts from the Lakers, as per Bryant’s request.
Teammate Metta World Peace, who was on board for Bryant’s last championship in 2010, gave thanks to Bryant via an animal analogy that only he could deliver. World Peace, for the uninitiated, likes to be called the Panda’s Friend.
“As the king of all pandas, playing against and with the Black Mamba — you know, the poisonous snake — I’ve experienced the ultimate effect of the venom as an opponent and as a teammate,” he said.
“And I’ve seen the effect that the venom had on other opponents. He’s been spitting his venom for 20 years. A lot of the opponents shriveled up as if you poured salt on a worm. You ever see the worms go squiggle, squiggle, squiggle? His venom has done that. And I’m just excited that the panda, who was never really affected by that venom, is actually on the same side as the Black Mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.”
Thank you, Metta?
Not to be forgotten, longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti is also retiring Wednesday. His tenure lasted 32 years and included eight championships in 12 trips to the NBA Finals.
“Old athletic trainers never die. They just fade away,” he said, his last one-liner as a full-timer. He’ll be a consultant with the team for two more years.
The Lakers will move on without Bryant, who makes $25 million this season. They’ll have plenty of money to spend on free agents this summer and a 55.8% chance of keeping their top-three protected draft pick on lottery night.
Things won’t be quite the same without Bryant. There have been few like him in the past. There will be even fewer like him in the future.
LAKERS VS. UTAH
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: ESPN2, TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 16-65, Jazz 40-41.
Record vs. Jazz: 0-3.
Update: Utah needs a victory and a Houston loss to Sacramento to squeak into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s eighth and final team. The Jazz dropped a costly home game Monday against Dallas and also lost shot-blocking center Rudy Gobert to an ankle injury. He was seen on crutches afterward. The Lakers were pummeled at Utah last month, 123-75, matching their worst loss in their 68-year history.
Times staff writer Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.