Kobe Bryant's farewell tour finally reaches its last 4 shows
LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant stands up, and hundreds rise with him. An urgent, wordless buzz steadily builds to an ovation while he heads to the scorers' table to enter the game.
If Bryant scores, the crowd roars with the memories of all the shots that came before.
And if another member of the Los Angeles Lakers intrudes on these special moments, he'll often hear something else.
"I feel bad for the other guys, because every time they shoot the ball, they get booed," Bryant said with a smile.
A similar scene has unfolded in arenas from Los Angeles to Boston ever since the third-leading scorer in NBA history announced his 20th season would be his last.
After claiming he didn't want a farewell tour when he retired, Bryant changed his mind in late November, turning the Lakers' season into a moveable tribute to a polarizing, globally respected athlete. Fans are relishing their final chances to watch Bryant's graceful game with the Lakers, who happen to be finishing up the worst season in franchise history.
The tour hits its final four stops in the next week. The Lakers have road games in New Orleans, Houston and Oklahoma City before Bryant's grand finale at home Wednesday against Utah.
"It's something that he deserves, that he's earned, and that we all want to do," said Lakers coach Byron Scott, Bryant's teammate in his rookie season. "I don't think anybody can question K.B.'s place in the game, and it's only natural that people want to honor him. We all do, too."
Kobe's long goodbye has led to some weird scenes, such as those boos for his teammates, or the time in Denver when an injured Bryant signed autographs and gave away his shoes while sitting on the bench.
He has been cheered in Sacramento, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities that had greeted him with seething hatred for the better part of two decades. Celebrities and millionaires gather outside the Lakers' locker room each night, waiting for Bryant to finish chatting with opposing players angling for autographed shoes or jerseys.
"I can feel it, and it feels pretty damn awesome," Bryant said. "It makes going through the years of losing, and not leaving, makes it all worthwhile. Staying here and taking the good with the bad, and the fans embracing and understanding that, that we ride together, that's a love that you can't break, man."
Meanwhile, the Lakers are wrapping up a historically miserable three-year stretch. They've set the 16-time champion franchise's record for single-season losses in three consecutive years, culminating in Wednesday's 62nd defeat.
"It doesn't matter," Bryant said. "It's hard for people to understand this, but losing is losing, and there aren't different degrees of losing. You either win a championship, or you're in the same boat we're in. It's very black and white to me. So whether you set a franchise record for losses or you get to the playoffs and lose in the Western Conference finals, those are the same damn thing to me."
That's the view of an 18-time All-Star with five NBA championship rings. The youngsters and modestly accomplished veterans currently playing a fairly warped version of basketball don't have Bryant's perspective, and it's too soon to tell how their supporting role on Bryant's tour has affected rookie D'Angelo Russell or second-year pros Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle.
Russell succinctly summed up the Lakers' strategy lately: "Get Kobe the ball."
"Especially now that we're winding down, there is even more of a focus on K.B.'s last game," Scott said. "I think all that attention and all that focus is probably affecting (the younger Lakers) a little bit, because they see it just like everybody else. They want him to do well. They want to try to give him the ball as much as possible when he's on the floor. It's a lot to digest. I know the focus is sometimes not there, because there's so much stuff going on."
General manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged months ago that Bryant's farewell is the Lakers' main priority this season, by practicality even more than preference. They can't really rebuild until they free up Bryant's playing time, ravenous shot selection and $25 million salary, highest in the NBA this season.
Bryant is 31st in the league in shot attempts (1,014) but 428th in field goal percentage (35.3), with the worst shooting accuracy of any player with at least 510 attempts.
But the Lakers know what the public wants, and what they owe to Bryant after two decades of service.
Bryant has been reflective and vocally grateful in recent weeks and unlike his fans, the NBA's career leader in missed shots insists he doesn't care if he gets the ball every time.
"I will defer, and I'll just come out and play the game," Bryant said. "This is what I'm here for, one more time, is to just play the game."