Lakers youngsters are soaking in Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour
There’s a 37-year-old saying goodbye to the NBA in his 20th and final season.
But there are three Lakers starters — ages 19, 21 and 23 — trying to get a foothold in the league, hoping to have long, productive careers.
The balancing act between old and young will be displayed almost continually over the final four-plus months of Kobe Bryant’s in-season retirement party.
It will sometimes be awkward, such as Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. Bryant distorted the offense by taking 26 shots, a whopping 17 from three-point range, in an embarrassing 103-91 loss in his hometown.
Other times, the balance will be better, like the Lakers’ unexpected 108-104 victory over Washington in which seemingly everybody contributed.
If the Lakers’ youth feels left out — or worse, forgotten — it’s not being expressed.
D’Angelo Russell, the youngest of the Lakers’ starters, said he felt like “a fan” while playing in Wednesday’s game, Bryant’s best of the season (31 points).
“Just to really get to witness it and see it in person,” Russell said, all but shaking his head in teenage wonderment.
The second-youngest starter, Julius Randle, was equally awestruck. The fan adulation and media attention has been non-stop since Bryant declared on Sunday he would retire after this season.
“It’s like Michael Jackson’s coming to town or something like that,” Randle said. “I haven’t seen anything like it.”
No one is comparing Bryant’s final lap to the happy-go-lucky chaos surrounding the “Showtime” Lakers, the 1990s Chicago Bulls or even the Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal teams of the early 2000s.
There will not be a championship run at the end of this rainbow. And many game nights will end with quiet Lakers locker rooms while Bryant makes the long walk to whatever interview room the host arena can offer.
Perhaps Bryant deserves a hall pass for the next 64 games. He gave the Lakers five championships in seven trips to the NBA Finals.
Plus, the Lakers (3-15) are going nowhere in the standings and, nudge, nudge, it wouldn’t hurt them to finish with a poor record if they want to keep their first-round pick in next June’s draft. It is top-three protected, meaning the Lakers don’t have to give it to Philadelphia if it is among the top three after the draft lottery.
So the jokes have already started about the young Lakers stealing shoes, jerseys and other memorabilia from Bryant as keepsakes from his goodbye tour.
“It’s a long season. I’ll try to get something every game,” Russell said.
Jordan Clarkson, the eldest of the three Lakers juniors, has the most at stake. He becomes a restricted free agent next July and this season means a lot to his future earnings.
He sometimes shows poor body language in games the Lakers lose. He possesses a portion of Bryant’s greatest attributes — to continually get better and to win — but seems at ease with the Bryant bonanza.
“This is greatness, man. Everybody wants to see his last go-round,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely cool to be a part of it. It’s crazy for sure.”
Clarkson said he even admired Bryant’s boldness.
“I told him this to his face: He’s one of the craziest dudes I know, mentally and on the court,” Clarkson said. “Some of the shots he takes and how aggressive he is, I think it’s just amazing. The stuff he’s doing is just unreal and he’s been doing it for so long.”
Clarkson had one last request. It was aimed at the camera crew Bryant hired to document his final season.
“Hopefully,” he said, grinning, “I make the film.”
Everybody thought this was Bryant’s last year. Except him, seemingly.
For more than a month, his shooting accuracy tumbled as his attempts banged off the rim (often hitting the front of it, a sign of weakening leg strength).
He’s glad he finally called it a career, saying he felt “much more relaxed.”
Not every arena will be as electric as Philadelphia and, to a surprising degree, Washington. There will be some less-frenzied crowds in the Lakers’ final 31 road games.
Bryant was hoping to enjoy it all regardless.
“I just hope I can stay injury-free,” he said.
When: 5 p.m. PST Friday.
Where: Philips Arena.
On the air: TV: TWC SportsNet, TWC Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 3-15; Hawks 12-9.
Record vs. Hawks (2014-15): 1-1.
Update: The Hawks don’t look like the team that started out 40-8 last season, but they own victories at Oklahoma City and at Memphis. Problem is, they’ve also lost to Brooklyn and twice to Minnesota. One of the Lakers’ best games last season came at Atlanta, a 114-109 victory that led to Nick Young calling himself the best shooter of all time (he scored 17 points).
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