Kobe Bryant’s legacy in his own words

Associated Press
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It started with a simple sentence a couple of decades ago.

“I… have decided to skip college and take my talents to the NBA.”

From there — and after some relatively humble beginnings coming off the bench and missing key shots in the playoffs — Kobe Bryant would go on to be one of the legends of the NBA.

A legendary career that ends Wednesday night at Staples Center.

He’s the only NBA player to have a 20-year career with one team. Kobe’s raw statistics are otherworldly: Five championships, two Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP, third on the all-time career scoring list, 15 All-NBA teams, 18-time All-Star, four-time scoring champion, and the list goes on and on.

However, those stats do not define Kobe — we will remember him more as one of the game’s ultimate competitors, a guy as driven as anyone who has ever laced up shoes and walked onto a court. He talked about that and his legacy over the course of this final season, something we captured at PBT.

Kobe talked about a lot of things this season, but it all started with chasing his dream — and inspiring a generation of players to do the same.

“It’s easier said than done because I think we all have dreams,” Kobe said. “But once you go through the process of trying to make those dreams a reality, you hit obstacles. And I think unfortunately because of pressure or anxiety or responsibilities, things, whatever, you kind of give up on those dreams and somewhere along the line you lose that imagination. I think it’s important that you never lose that. You have to keep that. That’s the most important thing. I never gave up my dream.”

And he inspired others not to give up their dreams.

“The coolest thing is the messages I receive from the players,” said of his farewell tour this season. “They say thank you for the inspiration, thank you for the lessons, for the mentality. Those things honestly mean the most from me, that respect from the peers, there’s nothing in the world that beats that.”

For a guy with such an intense, burning competitiveness, he was amazingly at peace with his decision to walk away from the game after this season. He had realized it was time, and knew he didn’t want to be traded and don another jersey to make a run at a sixth ring as a third or fourth option. He wanted to be a Laker for life. There will be no comeback as a player — in the NBA or Europe — and no stint as a coach.

Kobe battled back this season so that he could walk off the court one final time and do it on his terms. Injuries were not going to be the last word on his story. Wednesday night at Staples Center against Utah, Kobe will get the moment he wanted, walking off the court when he wanted to leave. And he’s at peace with what’s next.

“I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all.”

•••

From when he entered the league, Kobe understood what it took to become a great player. He was driven, but he also studied film on the greats, he reached out to them and learned from them. He challenged those around him and pushed them to challenge him.

When Kobe saw in others what he knew was in himself, he instantly respected it.

“Dirk and I have always had a great relationship because we’re both extremely competitive. Also both extremely loyal to our teams,” Bryant said the last time he faced Dirk Nowitzki at Staples Center.

“I’ll tell you a story about Dirk. He was up for free agency, and I knew what his response was going to be. But out of respect, everybody’s looking around at all these free agents, I felt I’d shoot you a text, if you want to come to L.A. He goes, I would love to play with you, but Dallas is my home. This is my team. I’m not leaving here. So he and I think a lot alike in that regard.”

Kobe’s game evolved over the course of his career, from the high-flying No. 8 playing next to Shaquille O’Neal, the kid who won a dunk contest and used his athleticism to get buckets, to the fundamentally impeccable, high-IQ No. 24 that could read the play and be a step ahead of everyone else on the court. He was pushed hard by the other greats in the game along that path.

“(The Spurs) pushed me to really fine tune and sharpen my game. I’m sad those matchups aren’t going to happen (anymore).”

So what does Kobe see as his career defining moment?

The 2010 NBA Finals against Boston.

“It was really big,” Kobe said. “We were part of the history of rivalry — and there was no way we could go down in history as being remembered as the team that lost twice to the Celtics (Boston had beaten Kobe’s Lakers in 2008). All the history that’s gone on (between these franchises) and there’s no way, no way.

“So even above and beyond winning a fifth championship, it was disappointing the memory of this organization and the rivalry that’s been there for decades. That was more important…. You know it was still a very beautiful thing to be a part of it. But the pressure, and understanding what this Finals meant, especially 2010 because you can’t lose twice to these guys. I don’t care how many Hall of Famers they have, it just can’t happen. There’s no excuse.”

•••

Through the arc of his career Kobe evolved into the unquestioned leader, not just of the Lakers but one of the veteran voices in the NBA other players looked up to. He had help with that from other legends of the game.

“(Bill Russell) has been an unbelievable mentor.,” Kobe said. “Especially from the standpoint of leadership and understanding group/team dynamics. Some of the experiences he’s been through, and how he’s been able to manage some of the teams he’s been on, and some of the difficulties he might have faced. He’s been an invaluable ear and voice for me.”

Like his game, Kobe’s leadership style evolved.

“(A leadership voice) just comes with time and it comes with age. When you first come into the league you’re trying to figure out what’s what — what is the right thing to say, what is the wrong thing to say. Trying to avoid conflict and controversy. Then as you age you realize that no matter what you say there’s always going to be conflict, there’s always going to be controversy so the best thing to do is just be yourself. Then if there’s going to be conflict or controversy created it’s going to be created from the person that you truly are.”

•••

Father Time wins every race against man, and he won against Kobe. Eventually.

But Bryant was not going to take the hint of torn Achilles or knee surgeries to leave the game, he was going to overcome those and walk off the court. It wasn’t the physical that made Kobe realize it was time to walk away — “you can always figure the physical out” — it was the mental side.

“Sitting in meditation for me, my mind starts drifting, and it always drifted to basketball. Always. And it doesn’t do that anymore. It does that sometimes, it doesn’t do that all the time. That was the first indicator that this game was not something I can obsess over much longer.”

Kobe isn’t leaving the game as one of those curmudgeonly old “get off my lawn” guys, he’s not a player with disdain for the younger generation.

“When we first came in, it’s always the younger generation that comes in and it’s just like the elder statesmen says this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing. They’re going to absolutely kill the game. The game, when we played, was pure and all this kind of stuff. Hey, man, that’s always the case. When we came in, we were just young kids that wanted to play, and (Allen Iverson) was aggressive. It was a newer generation, newer culture, but I think where the game ended up, it ended up in a beautiful place.”

That did not mean Kobe would go quietly. In flashes this season he put up points and showed his old swagger — he was demanding respect one last time.

“We were playing Portland and some kid from the bench said something to me, said ‘we’re going to beat you tonight.’ I looked at him and said ‘I’ve got one rule: If you weren’t born when I started playing you can’t talk trash. It’s a simple rule’ And he looked and said, ‘Yes sir.’”

So what happens the first day of retirement?

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep.”

Kobe doesn’t seem to get the point of coffee. And even in retirement, whatever is next, it’s hard to imagine Kobe going back to sleep rather than jumping into what’s next with both feet — and an unparalleled determination.

Free agent Candace Parker announces she will sign with champion Aces

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Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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The WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces are about to get better.

Two-time MVP and two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker announced she plans to sign with the Aces when free agency opens on Feb. 1

The WNBA champions just got better — a starting frontcourt of Parker and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson (with Kelsey Plum in the backcourt) could make Las Vegas the best defensive team in the league. While Parker may not be the scorer she once was, she can serve as a fulcrum for the offense, get the ball to the other players on the deeply talented Aces, and make them a serious threat to repeat.

Still, a cloud hangs over the Aces organization after what Dearica Hamby alleged after she was traded to the Sparks. Hamby said she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” by the Aces front office surrounding her pregnancy and contract. Those are serious allegations, and the WNBPA is looking into the matter.

On the court (if the investigation results don’t weigh them down), the Aces have to be title favorites now. However, when WNBA free agency comes on Wednesday that could shift, depending on what Breanna Stewart chooses to do (along with other key free agents). There has been speculation Stewart could head to New York to team up with Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu on a Liberty team that would instantly be the biggest threat to the Aces (if not the outright favorite).

Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting WNBA free agency.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.