Bulls

Kobe Bryant's last game in Chicago full of nostalgia, disbelief and appreciation

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Kobe Bryant's last game in Chicago full of nostalgia, disbelief and appreciation

The “Kobe! Kobe!” chants began as a dull roar in corners of the United Center, prompting a sheepish smile from Kobe Bryant as the Bulls temporarily held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of his last game in Chicago.

It grew to “We want Kobe! We want Kobe!” as Bryant pumped his fist in satisfaction. Not because Bryon Scott called him to re-enter, but a Lakers 3-pointer cut a comfortable lead to a near panic-inducing 11-point Bulls lead.

But with a end of a back to back in Milwaukee the next day, Bryant had to save his remaining energy for the next stop on the tour, after giving this set of fans what they want.

After laughing it off, he appeared to mouth the words, “I’m coming back.”

The obligation of giving the fans what they paid for in this farewell tour got the best of him, as emerged from the bench and walked to the scorer’s table as camera phones and actual cameras popped in anticipation of the greatest since the greatest giving them one final glimpse of what used to be.

“Yeah, it’s a unbelievable feeling. I can’t even tell you…” said Bryant, before playfully knocking off a Gatorade cup from the podium, flashing that trademark edge with a smile. “After all these years, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel good.”

There wasn’t even as much a concern for Bryant actually coming back in to finish off a teetering squad and continuing a hot streak that started in the third quarter where he torched Mike Dunleavy, much to the delight of the fans in attendance.

Catch, dribble, dribble, shoulder fake, fadeaway to the baseline that looked eerily like the guy he used to emulate.

The crowd stood in anticipation, almost wanting to will Bryant to a point where it could bear witness to one final Mamba Moment, with poor Dunleavy on an island.

Wing catch, hard right dribble, effortless pull-up 21 footer.

“No, no. No, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Bryant said when asked if he ever envisioned receiving these types of receptions on the road. “It’s, a little strange to me at first because you’re used to being booed so many times and somebody’s actually cheering you, you’re not sure how to respond. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol's 'special night' saying farewell to friend Kobe Bryant]

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg didn’t know how to react, as he noticed the fans caring less about the score and a possible collapse but more about seeing the living legend one more time.

“It is very well-deserved for Kobe, everything he’s getting in his farewell sendoff,” said Hoiberg, words easily said after a win than a stomach turning loss. “It is pretty cool to be a part of it.”

Being a part of it means taking on the mantle as the league’s elder statesman, something that hasn’t gone lost on Bryant, especially in the wake of peers Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson being announced as finalists to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the same weekend as Bryant’s last All-Star game.

“It freaks me out every time I hear about it,” Bryant said. “(Former teammate) Tyronn Lue’s coaching. Luke Walton’s coaching. Commentators have been retired for years that were rookies when I first came in. It’s the weirdest thing in the world.”

Building it up, digging deep to what once was an endless reservoir of energy every night has taken its toll, as with 25 games left in Kobe Bryant’s career, the finality of things hasn’t hit him yet.

It seems to have hit Chicagoans in a different way, as for years, Bulls fans would cringe at the thought, let alone the mention of a Jordan comparison. Now, though, as they knew they were getting a last gasp of the close thing to a reasonable facsimile to the man immortalized in statue form, it turned to appreciation or a fan-like form of lust.

There were plenty of Jordan jerseys in the stands, from the Bulls variety to the Dream Team garb, symbolizing the closest thing to a reason to pull those dusty oldies from the closet and wear them proudly without looking like someone stuck in the past.

“Our competitiveness is second to none,” Bryant said of the comparisons to Jordan. “We’re pretty obsessive about how to get an edge, how to compete with people, to the point where like when I was playing if I said ‘Hi’ to a player they’d look at me sideways like ‘what is he up to?’ I think it’s that attention to detail and that competitive spirit that really makes that connection. Not too many players as maniacal as we’ve been.”

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With 45.3 seconds left, Bryant exited for the final time and received a standing ovation from the Chicago faithful and the Bulls players on the floor, very dissimilar to his entrance in this building so many years ago.

In his first game in Chicago, after Jordan easily spun around him for a dunk, TNT commentator Verne Lundquist said, “(Kobe’s) now in a post-graduate course…talk about a fast track.”

“That was like the coolest thing. It was,” recalled Bryant. “Because I had seen that spin move so many times and I knew he was going to do it.”

And just like everyone knows Bryant is walking away from the game, it’s still hard to believe the day is here.

“It’s always different, there’s always an air here,” Bryant said. “You can feel the championships and the history here. This place has always been that for me.”

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.