Polarizing in his prime, Kobe enjoys some love in the end

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant smiles to the crowd during a ceremony before Bryant's last NBA basketball game, against the Utah Jazz, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant smiles to the crowd during a ceremony before Bryant’s last NBA basketball game, against the Utah Jazz, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
They came to pay tribute, the rich and famous in their courtside seats and the less affluent up high in the rafters of Staples Center.
If they felt somewhat conflicted about saying goodbye to Kobe Bryant, well that was OK. Nike told everyone so with a series of farewell ads, including one where Bryant conducts from the court as fans of different teams sing to him.
“I hate you, I hate you,” they sing, bringing a wide smile to Bryant’s face.

It was finally time for sentiment for a player who for so long rejected any sentimentality. Up until this train wreck of a season, all Bryant wanted was the ball and for everyone — teammates and fans included — to get out of the way.
His farewell season showed there was a softer side to the self-named Black Mamba. In city after city he hugged opposing players, collected gifts from other teams and smiled through some of the most lopsided losses any Los Angeles Lakers team ever suffered.

It wasn’t really Kobe, no. The old Kobe wouldn’t have stood for such nonsense. This was more like some impersonator in a No. 24 Lakers jersey throwing up shots that too often clanked hard off the rim.
The real Kobe hasn’t been around for a few years, at least since the end of the 2013 season when he tore his Achilles tendon and would literally never be the same. Try as he might — and Bryant always tried harder than anyone on a basketball court — he couldn’t consistently recapture the Kobe of old, something he finally acknowledged early into this season when he announced his pending retirement.
That he managed to do it on his final night in a Laker uniform — with his teammates feeding him the ball on every possession — was proof enough of his greatness. Somehow at the age of 37, after 1,346 regular season and 220 playoff games, he found enough to score 60 points and lead his team to one final win, the way he used to do it on a regular basis.
With his retirement now final comes the analysis of where he belongs among the greats in NBA history. Some put him in the top 5 players of all time, while others don’t even include him in their top 10.
The argument could even be made that he may not have been a starter on a team of great Lakers, a group that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson, among others.
The natural comparison is the easiest. Bryant fails there because he could never surpass Michael Jordan unless he had six championships like Jordan, and with both his body and the Lakers declining in recent years there was never a chance.
The debate is polarizing, just like Bryant himself has always been polarizing. With Bryant it’s hard to agree on anything, whether it was his culpability in the sexual assault of a hotel clerk that put him in a court of a different sort in Colorado in 2003 or whether the comparisons to Jordan really were unfair.
What was never questioned was how much winning meant to Bryant. It was at the very core of who he was, from the moment he laced up his Nikes as a teenager to the night it came to an end two decades later before a warm and appreciative crowd at Staples.
Winning meant more to Bryant than becoming friends with his teammates. Winning meant more to him than putting on a likable front for fans.
Winning meant everything until suddenly this year it finally didn’t.
And win he did, joining O’Neal for a run of three titles, then putting the Lakers on his back several years later for two more. Add them up and there were rings for every finger on one hand, something he didn’t mind pointing out to one big former teammate he ran out of town before they could win even more titles together.
There are other numbers, though the five NBA championships are what mattered most to Bryant and should matter most to those judging his career.
There’s the 33,643 points that put him third on the NBA’s scoring list, behind Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. The 81 points he scored in one game, or the 20 years he toiled for one team in his remarkable career.
Don’t forget the 18 All-Star selections, or the surprising fact he won the MVP award only once.
He came of age in the old Forum, with Chick Hearn describing to Laker fans just how good the kid will someday be. He leaves after making $25 million this year playing a mostly ceremonial role on the worst Laker team in history.
Fans may have found him tough to love until he turned into a teddy bear this year, but that didn’t seem to bother Bryant. They may have questioned his seemingly unquenchable desire to always take the last shot, but take it he still did.
That didn’t change in last game Wednesday night when he scored 17 straight points to put the Lakers ahead, in a meaningless game that meant everything to Laker fans.
Bryant put on one last show, one last performance for the ages. He did it before fans who were given black T-shirts that read “LOVE” with the Nike logo in place of the V.
Nice touch. But there was no need to be reminded that love was what they were feeling on this night for Bryant.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or https://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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