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NEW YORK – No longer do reactions to the public referendums on Kobe Bryant spitfire out of his mouth with that old, defiant rage, the way in which a boulder tumbles down a mountainside, gathering speed and danger and destruction with every rotation. Peace of mind comes with incremental progress, with a victory, with the light of his final basketball destination flickering in the distance.
The long goodbye for Kobe Bryant made it out onto the road on Friday night, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn playing the part of the prelim to a Sunday matinee at Madison Square Garden. Bryant could feel the strength starting to regenerate in his legs here, delivering him a modest improvement over a dreadful Staples Center performance on Tuesday.
As Bryant begins what appears in every way to be his farewell tour, the truth becomes clearer and clearer to him. He isn't chasing the playoffs, nor a championship. Kobe Bryant is chasing a ghost.
"I get held to much higher standards than most of my peers," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on his walk out of the Barclays Center. "If I have a bad shooting night, it's, 'He's in the grave. He's in the coffin.' Look around the league, and other players have bad shooting nights – and it's just a bad shooting night.
"But the expectations that they have for me, they're actually something that I appreciate. Achilles injury. Fractured knee. Torn shoulder. Twentieth year in the league. Thirty-seven years old. All that, and the expectations are that I average 30 points.
"But I appreciate those standards, because it's something that still pushes me, still drives me."
He laughs and nods in agreement with himself.
"Let's see what I can do," Bryant said.
Bryant had 18 points, had moments in the Lakers' 104-98 victory over the Nets. There was no air ball like Tuesday night to represent his perceived demise, no symbolism to inspire everyone to call it so, so sad to watch Bryant go out this way. He doesn't want people's pity, only a parcel of patience. He missed weeks of preseason practice with a calf injury, and hopes that everyone can give him a chance to get his lower base back, to accept that he's something of an old crank car in the garage on a cold winter morning that will run fine once it gets started.
Whatever his station in life, Bryant has never been too old – or too young – to upstage the Nets. Across 20 years, Bryant has represented something of torment to this franchise, the ultimate "What if?" to years of misfortune and mismanagement. While Bryant was a teenage star at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia, NBA rules let teams work out draft-eligible players as much as they wanted. The Nets brought Bryant to East Rutherford five different times, one ex-official told Yahoo Sports. Each time, they became more convinced that he could be the best player available on draft night – and yet officials were confident he'd be there at No. 8.
As the story goes, John Calipari buckled to an agent's empty threats that Bryant would play in Italy if the Nets drafted him – and became a pawn in a plan to get Bryant to the Lakers. The Nets lost to Bryant and the Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals. And as barren as the Nets' three-year run in Brooklyn has been, the greatest moment in the Barclays history is probably Bryant's dunk in traffic two years ago.
Bryant did do the Nets a favor on Friday, besides packing the arena for two winless teams. After the loss, a Nets official brought rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to visit with Bryant in a room off the main corridor. Hollis-Jefferson played his high school ball in Chester, Pa., near Bryant's alma mater of Lower Marion High School. Hollis-Jefferson made his first NBA start, but left with a another substantial thrill: meeting Bryant for the first time.
As Bryant and Hollis-Jefferson huddled inside the room, a Nets official nodded toward his rookie and said, "Player development." They knew Hollis-Jefferson would listen to what Bryant told him, and made sure they had an audience before Bryant left the arena.
So everyone else stood and cheered and made such a big noise every time the ball found Bryant's hands on Friday night. Two winless teams, and Bryant gave the arena life, gave it relevance.
Over and over, they chanted Bryant's name at the Barclays Center. He let the love wash over him, waving to everyone on his way out, disappearing into the tunnel with his hands raised to the rafters. The Lakers won't win a lot of road games this year, and that kind of response won't always feel appropriate. It did on Friday, though. Truth be told, it felt perfect.
"The crowds, the chanting, people wanting to see me play – I'm extremely, extremely appreciative of that," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "I understand what that means. Listen, my personality isn't the rocking chair kind of thing, but the chanting of my name means enough to me."
Part of the reason Bryant doesn't want a traditional farewell tour is that he hates the idea of ceremonies draining the competitive fire out of him. Nevertheless, he'll no longer get what drove him all those years: the venom and vitriol that comes for the villain. Those days are done, what with Bryant transformed into a grand statesman. Twenty years is forever in the NBA, and now opposing arenas, beginning in Brooklyn, understand the likes of him will never come again.
On his way out of the Barclays Center and into a New York night, Bryant was asked if he ever imagined there would be this adoration tumbling down on this final lap. After all, he had watched great, old men leave the NBA, leave professional sports. He had to imagine how it would look and feel for him.
"I never thought about it," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "Never. All I thought about was winning eight, 10 championships. You feel like you're going to play forever, live forever. That never crossed my mind, because I just thought that it's never going to end anywhere."
And so, at the beginning of what feels like the end, the Barclays Center told Bryant goodbye on Friday night. Everyone stood and cheered and chanted his name. Still, Bryant had never been so sure that he had done the right thing and passed on one of those Kareem and Dr. J and Jeter farewell tours.
They called his name past the final buzzer, past the victory, past the chants chasing him through the tunnel and into the locker room. Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.
Twenty years into his career, and those surgeries, that pain, still smoldering inside of him, Bryant sees the light of his final basketball destination in the distance. Bryant still believes he has something left inside of him, still some shots and thrills and moments, to leave in his wake.
For one night anyway, one stop at the beginning of a goodbye season, he left them cheering, left them calling his name. Kobe Bryant climbed into the backseat of a black SUV and disappeared into the night. Kobe Bryant could still hear everyone calling his name in Brooklyn, and yes, that is still enough for him. At the end, maybe it's still everything.
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