Kobe Bryant may have very well played his final game in Portland last night. There is one Moda Center meeting between the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers left on the schedule this season (January 23), but it comes as the second game of a back-to-back for LA. Bryant, at 37 years old and in his 20th NBA season, seems unlikely to play. It appears even less likely that Bryant will remain in the league to let those numbers roll over to 38 and 21 respectively, after this year.
If last night was his final performance in Portland, it certainly could have been worse. Although the Lakers lost 108-96, Bryant put up 21 points, three short of his season-high. Granted, efficiency eluded him, but what else is new? The 5x NBA champion and 17x NBA All-Star has been far from his former self in the face of serious injuries these past few years—on the court at least. For better or worse, he approaches the game with the same mental tenacity he always has.
Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune spoke with Bryant after Saturday’s loss, finding the star ready to reminisce. Gone are the days of Bryant’s scoring explosions, but not so far that they are gone from memory.
I told Kobe the game I recalled more vividly than any of his in Portland was on April 11, 2013, when he willed the Lakers to a 113-106 triumph. In a game that pushed the Lakers into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, Bryant scored 47 points on 14-for-27 shooting, collecting eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots and three steals while playing the entire 48 minutes. At 35 years of age.
"The mindset that night was, 'We have to win,'" he said. "We hadn't won here in a very long time. It was a matter of doing whatever was necessary to get that 'W.'"
He paused, then shook his head.
"Then I blew the Achilles in the next game," Kobe said.
Although saddened by his own misfortune, Bryant was quick to praise Portland’s new wave of talent. A rookie Damian Lillard gave Bryant a run for his money with 38 points of his own in that 2013 contest. He has continued to grow since, and now has an up-and-coming running mate in C.J. McCollum. Totaling 57 points between them last night recaptured Bryant’s attention.
"'Dame' is one of the best players in the league," he said. "He is a fantastic player. And McCollum is continuing to improve. He is growing at an extremely rapid pace. It seems to be a breakout year for him. Their ability to navigate screen-and-rolls is excellent, and tonight, they did a good job of getting into the paint and squatting behind picks."
Whether you’ve loved or hated Bryant through the years, it is clear that he has respect for what the Blazers are doing here in Portland. We won’t have him to kick around forever. There is something to be said for a player that can still elicit boos from the crowd at every touch of the ball after two decades. He is the villain against which Portland rallies, the spoiler of championship aspirations, the scourge of an NBA generation—and it is okay to miss him when he's gone.
You can read what Bryant had to say about past Blazers iterations, as well as his fanatical adversaries and their booing, in Eggers' full article, which can be found here.