Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour made its final stop in Charlotte Monday night, and before it was over we got all sorts of things.
We got Kobe explaining his version of how the Charlotte Hornets drafted him but never wanted him – he said he got this comment straight from then-Charlotte head coach Dave Cowens – back in 1996.
We got Michael Jordan giving a sweet 90-second tribute to Kobe over the big screen before the game that included the MJ line: “Have a great game tonight.” And then, after a pause: “Not too good of a game.”
We got Kobe ultimately following that advice, as he shot 5-for-20 and scored 20 points in 32 minutes in Charlotte’s 108-98 win over the L.A. Lakers.
We got a fun night before a before a sellout crowd of 19,632, the largest ever for a regular-season Hornets game at Time Warner Cable Arena. We got those fans cheering Kobe’s every move in a total lovefest for a player who long prided himself in playing the villain. And we got some revisionist history from Kobe, who like many athletes has always searched for motivations in real or perceived slights from other teams.
And all of that is fine. After 20 years, and now playing out the string on a terrible Lakers team that is 5-27, the least we can all do is allow Kobe to go out the way he wants to go out.
If you have forgotten or never known, the Hornets took Kobe at No. 13 overall in the 1996 draft. But it was a pre-arranged deal – the Lakers badly wanted Kobe and asked Charlotte to pick Kobe for them. In return, the Lakers traded center Vlade Divac to Charlotte.
But as Kobe explained it Monday night: “Charlotte never wanted me here. Cowens told me he didn’t want me here. It wasn’t a question of me playing here. They had a couple of guards already and small forwards already.”
So although Kobe’s agent Arn Tellem was trying to steer Kobe to L.A. all along, Kobe basically said that Cowens disrespected him along the way. “I mean, I had grown up watching basketball,” Kobe said. “I knew who Dave Cowens said. I said, ‘Oh’ [after Cowens said Charlotte didn’t want him]. All right.’ It was quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.”
Divac threatened to retire rather than report to Charlotte, but he eventually relented. If Divac had really retired? Maybe Charlotte then would have kept Kobe, who would have certainly won over Cowens and likely changed the course of NBA basketball history.
But it doesn’t matter much now, not unless you just love to wallow in “what-ifs.”
Kobe went to L.A., where he has played for 20 years, won five NBA championships and became the NBA’s No. 3 all-time scorer.
When asked to describe his playing style over those 20 years, Kobe settled on one word Monday: “Mean.”
That’s a pretty good one. Kobe wasn’t just ferociously talented. He had a competitive drive that perhaps only Jordan understands.
“I’m pretty sure you’re just like me,” Jordan said in his 90-second video. There is no higher praise than that from MJ.
Jordan also said in his 90-second video that “I’ve always been like a big brother and you’ve been like a little brother.” The two communicate a lot. Kobe said they had talked Sunday and that Jordan said he was on vacation so he couldn’t make Kobe’s last game in Charlotte in person.
What everyone who was there Monday night saw was a far cry from Kobe’s most incredible game in Charlotte. In 2006, I watched Kobe put up 58 points in a triple-overtime loss to the then-Bobcats – one of the most remarkable individual performances I have ever seen in any sport. Even now, many Hornets fans consider that game their favorite of all time.
Kobe was always a great villain. He relished the role.
“It was just so natural to me for so many years,” Kobe said. “It feels awkward, to be honest with you, to get this praise. ... I’m glad they didn’t do this many, many years ago. It’s like Kryptonite – it took away all my energy and all my strength because I relied a lot on being the villain.”
Now Kobe is the beloved elder statesman, an old rock-and-roller giving the fans one last feel-good ride. He no longer is the best player on any court he steps upon. On Monday, the best player was Kemba Walker, who scored 38 points.
Kobe is a nostalgia trip now. He waves to everyone and smiles. He tries to play the greatest hits.
But he doesn’t always like it. He thinks about saying something “controversial,” he said, just to “p---- everybody off” and make them hate him again. But given that his team is 5-27, he thinks, what would be the point?
So he is playing one more year, on his terms, telling the stories of his career the way he wants to tell them.
And although the one Kobe tells about Charlotte isn’t quite right, so what? Let him tell it the way he wants to. After 20 years, Kobe has earned that.