Twenty years ago, Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. He went scoreless in the game. Tonight, the five-time champion, third-all-time leading scorer, and 18-time All Star will play the last game of his career in what is sure to be an emotional send-off to the Los Angeles Lakers great.
Bryant, known by the moniker he gave himself, the Black Mamba, and the Lakers face off against the Utah Jazz at home to end the season. He announced his retirement in a poem last November, in part writing, “My heart can take the pounding / My mind can handle the grind / But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
Indeed, the past few seasons have been rocky for Bryant, and the Lakers for that matter. Los Angeles is missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season, something that seemed unheard of during the Phil Jackson years of coaching, from 1999 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2011. In the team’s 68-year history, the Lakers have missed the playoffs only eight times. Rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2013 and breaking a bone in his left knee in 2014 made Bryant lose much of the edge that made him one of the best players in the league, making way for the dominance of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook.
Even in his final games, Bryant has acknowledged his physical limits, failing to score after the first quarter in a game Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I couldn’t move, man,” he said after the game, according to CNN. “I couldn’t move well at all."
As happens for many athletic greats, Bryant’s send-offs—see: “Kobe Plays Last Game in [insert city]” headlines—have been touching and plentiful. Deadspin writes that even haters are “paying our final respects as he made the hardwood his deathbed.” In an online video Nike released this week, famous athletes, from the tennis star Serena Williams to the golfer Rory McIlroy, applauded Bryant’s career.
The Thunder star Kevin Durant, for his part, however, called Bryant an “asshole” in the video. “He pissed me off a lot,” Durant said. “He happened to say, ‘You guys can’t even sit at the lunch table with me. I got five championships. What do you have?’”
Bryant thrived off being hated, as many competitors do. Even in an advertisement directed toward his Chinese fanbase, which is substantial (some there have made seeing his last game a $10,000 vacation), he said people should hate him, because he pushes them “to greatness.” He even found himself at loggerheads with his coaches. Jackson said he could often feel Bryant’s hatred toward him. But, he says, “I’ve always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent guy, and a remarkable person.”
Bryant leaves a big mark on the NBA, and basketball in general. Beyond his two Finals MVPs and 33,583 points, he’s also a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner for the United States. Magic Johnson, another Lakers legend, in a letter said Bryant changed the game of basketball, along with other greats like Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
“Every night you played, I couldn’t wait to watch knowing that I would witness an unbelievable shot or move that I had never seen on the court,” Johnson writes. “I marveled at the skills and loved the energy you brought to the game wearing that purple and gold uniform.”
Bryant, the future Hall of Famer, will start the game tonight for the Lakers at 10:30 Eastern at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.