LOS ANGELES: With breathtaking skill and a ruthless will to win Kobe Bryant stamped his authority on the NBA, leaving a mark that will linger long after the Los Angeles Lakers guard plays the last game of his 20-year career on Wednesday.
Bryant, 37, will walk away with five NBA titles, having secured his place not only among such Lakers icons as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Jerry West but also in the pantheon of NBA greats still presided over by Michael Jordan.
“I studied him, wanted to be like him,” Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player, said when Bryant announced in November that this season would be his last.
“He was our Michael Jordan,” Durant said, “a guy who changed the game for me as a player mentally and physically … someone I’m always going to look to for advice for anything. Just a brilliant, brilliant intelligent man.”
Such accolades have poured in since November, even fans in long hostile arenas showering Bryant with affection as a dismal Lakers season evolved into a Kobe farewell tour that concludes at Staples Center against the Utah Jazz.
Courtside seats for what promises to be a glittering event were going on ticket resale site StubHub for just under $20,000, with the cheapest seats going for more than $600.
Those who don’t get in can still attend a Lakers-sponsored fan-fest outside the arena.
“He deserves it after 20 years,” said Eric Pincus, who covers Bryant and the Lakers for the Los Angeles Times and Basketballinsiders.com. “Very few players play 20 years of basketball, a typical career might be five years, seven years.”
The celebrations are an ironic final twist in the career of a player whose uncompromising nature has made him a polarizing figure.
Bryant has produced some of the NBA’s most dazzling scoring performances — topped by his 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 — and stands third on the league’s all-time scoring list behind only Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone and ahead of Jordan.
But critics have hammered him as an “inefficient” shooter, selfishly unwilling to share the ball with teammates, a knock Bryant dismissed on Twitter last year with the succinct comment: “Count to 5”.
For Bryant, titles trump all, a philosophy that propelled him to global superstardom even as it turned teammates into rivals and opponents into mortal enemies.
Bryant feuded famously with Shaquille O’Neal after teaming with him to lead the Lakers to titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002, the public hostilities lingering long after O’Neal departed and Bryant had gone on to win two more championships.
Phil Jackson, who guided the Lakers to those three titles and to two more in 2009 and 2010, labelled his sometimes surly star “uncoachable” in his autobiography.
“Kobe is not necessarily known as the nicest guy, he would tell you himself that he didn’t win by being nice, he won by being competitive and being vicious,” Pincus said. “That turned people off along the way, so he has a lot of enemies, a lot of fans who love him, and a lot of fans of other teams who hated him.
“But now as it all comes to an end, I think everyone respects him.”
Off the court, a 2003 accusation of rape by a 19-year-old Colorado woman clouded Bryant’s reputation and cost him several endorsement deals.
The case was dismissed when the alleged victim refused to testify, and Bryant’s stock rose again.
Forbes estimated this month that Bryant’s endorsement deals and commercial partnerships have swelled his career earnings to $465 million, and the figure is expected to top $680 million by the time he bows out for good.
That would make him the highest grossing team athlete in history, with only boxer Floyd Mayweather, golfer Tiger Woods and Formula One driver Michael Schumacher piling up bigger fortunes in sports.
Some pundits have questioned the Lakers’ loyalty to Bryant as the injuries piled up and his contribution dwindled, suggesting they should invest more in rebuilding rather than propping up an ageing figurehead.
Reports before the 2014-15 season that top free agents were wary of joining such a task-master team-mate in Los Angeles were dealt with roundly by part-owner and president Jeanie Buss, who said any one afraid of playing with Bryant was “probably a loser”.
But the fact remains that Bryant, who was limited by injury to just six games in 2013-14, has toiled the two seasons since on a Lakers team whose young talent has failed to gel around the veteran star.
Lakers coach Byron Scott described a dream scenario for Bryant’s final game, the “Black Mamba” draining a trademark fadeaway jumper to clinch victory in a close contest.
But for Bryant, the competitive fire that fueled his rise to stardom means there can be no Hollywood ending in a season in which the Lakers have again set a club record for defeats.
“Win a championship, and that ain’t happening,” Bryant said of his only dream scenario. “The dream’s done.” AFP