One more time Kobe Bryant unites Los Angeles, thrills fans as jerseys retired

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles is spread out. It’s diverse. It’s urban and suburban. Like all big cities, it can be hard to get a consensus on what direction the ocean is, let alone complex issues.

Except love of Kobe Bryant.

Monday night Kobe wasn’t even suiting up, yet there was a packed “Kobeland” area outside Staples Center filled with games, a DJ, a Ferris Wheel — and thousands of people. It was the most people outside the arena since the 2010 NBA Finals. Inside Staples it was the loudest it has been since Kobe’s final game, where he dropped 60. Almost everyone was wearing an 8 or 24 jersey.

Kobe is still the man in Los Angeles.

Monday night the Lakers retired both of Kobe’s numbers, 8 and 24, and the fans reveled in the nostalgia. Lakers fans have always loved him, appreciated him, and had his back. It was that way again Monday.

“We’re here to celebrate the greatest ever to wear the purple and gold…” said Lakers president Magic Johnson, the other person who could lay claim to that title. He talked about how the nation could use someone like Kobe, someone to bring them together. “There will never be another Kobe Bryant.”

Kobe brought Los Angeles together, but he was divisive most of his career outside the City of Angels. He was a brash young Laker wearing No. 8 who paired with Shaquille O’Neal to win three titles, his attitude and extreme confidence turned off some. Then came Colorado and the rape allegations. After that Kobe changed to No. 24, became the “love me or hate me you have to respect me” player who wore his competitiveness on his sleeve, and won two more titles paired with Pau Gasol. Jeanie Buss said the Lakers retired both numbers because in each era of his career he put up Hall of Fame numbers.

Which was better, 8 or 24?

“Eight will have something 24 will never, ever, ever, ever have — the ability to grown hair,” Bryant joked. “It’s really tough for me (to choose between 8 and 24), but 24 was tougher. And I tend to gravitate toward things that are harder to do.”

The spotlight was on Kobe one last time and he was philosophical about the honor of seeing his jersey next to Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, and all the other Lakers’ greats.

“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Those were Kobe Bryant’s words to his three daughters during his jersey retirement. Really, those words were the theme of the night.

For example, the halftime ceremony (watched by players from both teams), started with Kobe’s “Dear Basketball” short animated movie. It seems fitting that after being a Laker Kobe would take on Los Angeles’ other major export — movies. And he’s doing that well, “Dear Basketball” has some Oscar buzz.

When Kobe spoke, he talked about focusing on legacy and the process.

“It’s not about the jerseys hanging up there for me, it’s the jerseys that were hanging up there before… they pushed me,” Kobe said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Staples Center was filled with those inspirational basketball legends for the night — Jerry West, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson — and Kobe’s former teammates such as Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, and even Slava Medvedenko amongst others were all there.

Kobe was always about the task at hand, and he kept looking to the future and not his past.

“What we’ve done is awesome, but I think what’s really important is how our legacy impacts the generation to come,” Kobe had said earlier. “The jerseys that hang in the rafters now, and how they impacted me, which led to us being here in this moment now. I think that’s the true mark of a legacy, how it impacts the next generation.”

Kobe is a sounding board for the current generation of players — recently Stephen Curry reached out to him about how Kobe played through injuries. Others (including Luke Walton) text him all the time.

Kobe’s former teammates were telling stories. Walton’s may have been the definitive Kobe story.

“Kobe was one of the most intelligent basketball player’s I’ve ever seen, and I could talk to him about what I had seen and what he was seeing,” Walton said. “I joke, he sees everything, but when the game starts a lot of times he doesn’t want to hear it. I’d say ‘Kobe we talked about this yesterday, if they do this then I’m going to throw the ball over here,’ and it’s like, ‘NO. Give me the ball.’ ‘Sure.’”

It was Kobe’s team and Kobe’s city. For one more night, it still was.