Column: Kobe’s final (?) season should be a wild ride
He crashed the national anthem.
During the final reverent stanzas of the pregame song Wednesday night, the Staples Center video board showed a reverent Kobe Bryant, and the crowd roared.
He crashed the tipoff.
Moments before the Lakers opened the 2015-16 season against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant walked to center court with a microphone and delivered a message.
“On behalf of our organization we want to thank all you guys for your unwavering support,” he said.
Then, finally, the ball went up, and he crashed the expectations, crashed the fears, and crashed our consciousness with the same nightly shattering that’s been happening for two decades.
On Bryant’s 20th anniversary as a Laker, he threw himself one crazy surprise party.
Celebratory glares showed up. So did chest thumps, fist pumps, fingers pointed to the sky, right hands wagging in frozen pose. Early in the third quarter, chants of “M-V-P, M-V-P” even showed up, and at the conclusion of the period he had 21 points and the Lakers were rolling.
In the end, alas, Bryant’s age also showed up, as he wearily missed all five of his shots in the fourth quarter, scored just three points, and watched the young Lakers collapse into a 112-111 loss to the Timberwolves. Perhaps fitting for the new role he must adopt this season, in the final seconds, with a play called and the Lakers having chance to win the game, Bryant never touched the ball, as Lou Williams took his inbounds pass and missed a last-gasp layup.
“That’s his shot,” Bryant said of Williams, with those three words being as close to a final-shot concession speech as he’s ever made.
Overall, playing a monitored 29 minutes, Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points, but also missed 16 of 24 shots, including 10 of 13 three-point attempts. He was brilliant at times, frustrating at times, and eventually just ran out of gas.
“This is my first regular season game in a very long time,” Bryant said. “I kind of have to work the rhythm back a little bit. I’ll be fine.”
Enjoy it. Embrace it. Put up with it. Whatever. If this is indeed going to be Bryant’s final season and was any indication, the ride is going to be wild to the end.
“I thought he was all right, he played hard, he competed,” said Coach Byron Scott of Bryant, but the boss wasn’t completely pleased.
He noted that late in the game, Bryant was one of two Lakers who took a silly quick three-pointer with the Lakers trailing by only four.
“We had a lot of [bad decisions] tonight, we really did,” Scott said.
Bryant said he felt the three-pointers were good looks, even if the Lakers missed 26 of 35 attempts, and he generally felt good about the direction of the team.
“I’m encouraged, we’ll figure out how to play in these situations, I’m very encouraged,” he said. “A lot of those were first-game jitters.”
Or maybe 20-year jitters?
Before the game, all the focus was on Bryant’s past, with everyone buzzing about him setting an NBA record for the most seasons with one team, surpassing John Stockton’s 19 years with the Utah Jazz.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Scott. “I don’t know if we’ll see that one again.”
Few were focused on Bryant’s potential performance because few had any idea how he would look. He had rarely been seen on the court since injuring his leg during an exhibition 15 days ago. There was even some question whether he would play.
But the minute the arena filled up, there was no question that no matter what happened, his presence would be felt by a crowd clearly treating this like the beginning of a farewell tour.
Fans screamed at him during warmups, cheered every time his face was on the video board, interrupted the anthem in his honor and cheered wildly for his welcoming message, not that Bryant was paying much attention.
“I think he deserves it, but I don’t think he wants something like that,” said Scott. “I think he just wants to play.”
In the beginning, that play was painfully rusty, with Bryant looking every bit of 37 years old, reminding everyone that he was playing for first time since Jan. 21 of last season and playing in only his 42nd game in three seasons.
He started the game by clanking a three. He made a fall-away jumper for his first points of the season, but then he missed one, and another one, and another one, making only two of his first seven shots.
He left the game midway through the first quarter with the Lakers trailing by four, and by the time he returned midway through the second quarter, the Lakers led by 13 and yeah, surely folks were thinking, this young team is better without him.
Not so fast.
He hit a jumper from the top of the key, then hit a three-pointer that caused him to purse his lips and say, “Ohhhh,” and he was not alone.
At this point, a guy sitting behind the basket stood up and shouted, “Kobe, you got this!” and indeed, he had, nailing another three-pointer after which he pounded his chest and pointed to the sky.
Then, slowly, the magic sort of disappeared, and get used to it. The end of Kobe Bryant’s long and winding road is clearly going to be just that.
Long and winding.
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