With the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant on Sunday morning, it gives us a moment to look back at the superstar in a different light. As a player, he brutalized the Sacramento Kings on so many occasions, but his greatness on the court isn’t what stood out.
The 18-time All-Star wasn’t always easy to deal with. He clearly didn’t love speaking to the media after each and every game, especially on the road, when the demand for his time came from unfamiliar voices.
This isn’t uncommon amongst NBA players. There is a trust and familiarity that is built with the people who cover you on a daily basis.
In his final visit to Sacramento on Jan. 7, 2016, Bryant was different. He laughed and smiled as Kings fans booed him one last time. When the noise turned from heckles to cheers, he acknowledged the fans that he had single handedly hurt so many times before.
Following the Lakers' 118-115 loss to the Kings that night, he held a full press conference, even speaking on Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
“I don’t think anything will ever top Game 7,” Bryant said. “Not the end of Game 7, but the beginning of Game 7, the start. The announcing of the starting five, the lights going out and all those cool lights they gave everybody and just waving them around and you just kinda feel the electricity in the building. That was the best part.”
On that night in 2016, Bryant wasn’t the player he had been in past visits, but he still managed to score 28 points, with 18 of those coming in the first half. Bryant sat out the fourth quarter as his Lakers rallied and almost caught the Kings.
This was a kinder gentler Bryant than we had seen in previous seasons. He was on his farewell tour and he seemed to finally be able to enjoy the ride. He even took a moment to stop and take pictures with Rudy Gay and his son that evening, which humanized him in a way that I didn’t believe possible.
There have been very few athletes like Bryant in the history of not only basketball, but professional sports. His work ethic and focus were surpassed by none.
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He spent a lifetime being in his own moment. It was obvious being around him that his intensity and passion for his craft made him great. Basketball was his obsession.
In his final visit to Sacramento, it was like he finally found a way to be a fan again. He was able to appreciate his accomplishments and enjoy the moment.