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.”
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.”