After he completed his obligatory on-court post-game television commitments, Kobe Bryant walked towards the visitors tunnel. The Madison Square Garden crowd, which had serenaded him with M-V-P chants throughout the evening gave him a standing ovation, and Bryant acknowledged them with an index finger pointed to the sky, and waving at fans as he walked off the court in New York for perhaps the final time in his career.
His team had just lost, 99-95, and for perhaps the first time ever in his career playing in New York, he wasn’t the villain.
Bryant hasn’t officially announced that this will be his last season, but the signs that 2015-16 season is his farewell tour became more noticeable during the Lakers’ past two games against the Nets last Friday, and Sunday afternoon against the Knicks. Lakers head coach Byron Scott alluded to it, admitting Bryant has indicated that this season may be it for him.
“We talked about it this summer,” Scott said. “We talked about it a few days ago, and talked again about it, and his feeling was, ‘You know coach, again, this might be my last year. So if possible, I would like to try and play every game.’”
In the meantime, the fans want to show their appreciation to one of the all-time greats, and even though Bryant has said he wants to be treated by fans no differently than before, he understands why he is being cheered instead of jeered.
“I wouldn’t say nostalgic or anything like that,” Bryant said after the game on how it makes him feel. “I just felt appreciative playing in such a historic building all these years.
“I don’t think you understand how much I watched this building growing up,” he continued. “I was a true, true fan of watching all these games. To be able to come here and have the performances that I had in this building, I feel extremely, extremely fortunate.”
If Sunday was his last appearance at MSG, then the 18 points (on 6-of-19 attempts from the field) will most certainly not rank alongside his most memorable nights at The Garden. His first NBA points were scored here; there was the-then-Garden-record of 61 points in 2009; his first All-Star game in 1998. Bryant indicated that matching those feats was not part of his plan for Sunday.
“I’ve always focused on doing what I can do at the moment,” he said. “Just taking what’s there in front of you and doing what I can do, and I can be very comfortable in that.”
It’s a different Bryant that takes the court for the Lakers these days – he has no interest in dominating the basketball as he once did. He no longer initiates the offense – D’Angelo Russell has been handed that responsibility. Offensively, he’s no longer looking to score on every possession, rather, he wants to teach the young Lakers’ prospects so when he does eventually leave the franchise, it will be in good hands.
“For years, guys spent a lot of time talking about how he had no room for his teammates,” said Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher, a former teammate. “Now it looks like he’s really embracing a lot of these young guys and giving them space to be NBA players. That takes a lot of character and a lot of fortitude.”
Bryant, 37, again won’t confirm he will retire at season’s end (April 13 against Utah at Staples Center), but when he was asked what he would like his legacy to be, he replied: “A talented overachiever. I’ve really worked my butt off every single day to make sure I left no stone unturned and try to push it as much as I possibly could.”
Feature image via: Ty Nowell Instagram