Kobe Bryant’s announcement that this season will be his last sent ripples around the NBA and although his play this season hasn’t been to his Jordan-like standards, the respect he’s earned was reflected through comments by former teammates, opposing players and observers.
“It’s tough. One of the best players ever to play the game,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “I was happy to play against him a couple times. Had great talks with him at dinner about the game. Just one of those days that you have going through your head.”
Gibson attended USC right when Bryant began emerging from Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow, and Bryant began taking some of the UCLA and USC players under his wing. Gibson was one of those players and during some dinners with Bryant, he did a lot of listening to Bryant’s advice.
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“He told me about being patient. Loved how I played,” Gibson said. “Just mentoring, just giving, just talking about the game. I’m talking about back in the USC days, but mostly just listen to him talk. There was a lot of good nights just vibing with him. Asking about different players, asking about the game, and what he did at night. He was a great guy.”
Bryant’s last visit to the United Center will be in February on a Sunday night, a place he holds dear because it’s not only where Michael Jordan made memories but it’s where Bryant’s best game as a second-year player occurred, a 33-point showcase on national TV against Jordan and the Bulls, his second 30-point game overall.
“Kobe’s one of the greatest of all time,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “What he accomplished in this league and he’s still out there fighting and battling after the injuries that he’s had the last couple of years. He’s been great for the game. When Michael was out there, he kind of passed the torch on to Kobe and he’s been one of the superstars of this league. He’s one of the reasons the popularity of this league is where it’s at right now. Just an unbelievable career and it will be sad to see him go.”
Hoiberg understands on some level what Bryant’s been struggling with, in terms of his basketball mortality. Hoiberg’s life-threatening heart condition forced him into retirement after 10 years, and regardless of the circumstances, it wasn’t an easy decision.
“It’s really hard to walk away from the game,” Hoiberg said. “In my situation, when I had to walk away before I was ready, it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had. As a competitor, someone who puts your heart and soul into the game, it’s really hard to walk away. I’m sure Kobe is going through a lot of emotions right now. Being his last year, it’s going to be I’m sure a lot of emotional nights for him.”
No matter what the numbers said, Bryant was the player Gibson feared most with the ball in his hands late and the game on the line. In the 2011-12 season opener on Christmas Day in Los Angeles, Derrick Rose hit a running floater with seconds remaining, leaving enough time for Bryant to work his magic.
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Gibson, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng converged on Bryant as he drove to the basket as Deng blocked his shot as Bryant got it off his fingertips. Gibson still has the picture of the magic moment.
“Kobe could really shoot the ball and you knew he was going to get the ball,” Gibson said. “Especially a couple years back on Christmas night, we put like four guys on him. It was like four of us on him and he still took the shot, and that’s how many bodies you had to put on him on one play.”