By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – Kobe Bryant’s final professional game in Chicago began Sunday night with longtime friend and former teammate Pau Gasol introducing him on the videoboard, a fitting gesture considering the two players have meant so much to each other’s legacy. Minutes later, they embraced for an emotional hug.READ MORE: Patients Left With A Lot Of Questions After Center For Covid Control Testing Sites Temporarily Shut Down, State Investigates Complaints
Later, after Gasol’s Bulls had beaten Bryant’s Lakers by a 126-115 count, Gasol pointed out how nice it was to finish his head-to-head career with a win against Bryant, one of the NBA’s most notorious trash talkers.
True to the maniacal, hard-driving form that pushed him to become one of the NBA’s all-time greats, Bryant closed his night at the United Center in a jam-packed press room with a classic story, at the expense of Gasol. Bryant harkened back to the first day of Lakers training camp ahead of the 2008-’09 season, just weeks after he helped lead Team USA past Gasol and Spain in the Olympic final.
“I had my gold medal just hanging in his locker,” Bryant said, insinuating this drove Gasol nuts.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you finished second in the Finals (in 2008). You finished second in the Summer Olympics. You can’t finish second again in June this year, so you better get your s— together. That was the message.”
The Lakers, of course, would go on to win the title that season and the next, bringing Bryant’s total to the five he’ll finish with. It’s tales like those that also symbolize Bryant’s ruthlessness, a trait that when combined with his world-class talents led to comparisons to the legendary Michael Jordan.
Bryant’s never shied away from being discussed alongside Jordan, and with retirement looming at season’s end and the Lakers struggling to an 11-46 mark, he’s become even more introspective. Sunday presented another opportunity to open up.
While Bryant pointed out how he and Jordan had different motivations en route to achieving greatness – himself driven more by the “process” and Jordan pushed by the “challenges right in front of him” – Bryant talked freely of how much influence Jordan had on himself and his game.
“No words can really do it justice,” said Bryant, the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer, one slot above Jordan. “As a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video. So I studied everything. I studied every player. When I came back to the States and realized I wasn’t going to be 6-9, I started studying Michael exclusively. And then when I came to the league and matched up against him, what I found was he was extremely open to having a mentor relationship. Giving me a great amount of advice and amazing amount of detail — strategies, workout regimens, things like that.
“Seriously, I don’t think people understand the amount of impact he had on me as a player and as a leader.
There was a time when Bryant thought he’d be following in Jordan’s footsteps in Chicago. As a free agent in July 2004, Bryant was disgruntled with the Lakers following a defeat in the NBA Finals and a feud with Shaquille O’Neal. Until O’Neal demanded a trade, Bryant had the Bulls in mind.READ MORE: Chicago Rapper Vic Mensa Arrested After Customs And Border Protection Agents Say They Found Drugs In Bag At Dulles International Airport
“I did,” Bryant said when asked if he thought he’d end up in Chicago. “Very much so. My wife and I were actually planning travel arrangements to come out to Chicago to look at some homes and schools and things like that. And then Shaq demanded a trade and it was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to trade me anywhere.’ So the sign-and-trade option just pretty much went off the table.”
Then in 2007, an unsatisfied Bryant was linked to the Bulls in trade talks as the Lakers struggled to flank him with a championship roster. Again then, he had Jordan in his mind.
“If I was fortunate enough to come here, if that trade had happened, it’s not a pressure situation to live up to what he’s done,” Bryant said. “It’s more like, ‘OK, I’m carrying on this man’s legacy. Can I do it justice? Can I represent Chicago the way it should be represented in his honor?’ Just a tremendous, tremendous amount of influence.”
In his pregame media session, Bryant fondly recalled his first matchup against Jordan at the United Center in December 1996, when Jordan used a patented spin move and went baseline for a dunk with Bryant guarding him. Bryant referred to it as “getting schooled.”
“The timing on TV and in person are two completely different things,” Bryant recalled. “So he spun right before I thought he was going to spin. And I was like, ‘That was pretty cool.’”
As it is now, Bryant can’t muster similar highlights, his lift gone at 37. He scored 22 points Sunday, including an early third-quarter stretch in which he hit four straight jump shots, two of them baseline fadeaways that reminded of Jordan.
The night’s lasting memory had to do about much more than basketball. It came in a surreal fourth-quarter scene, when a sellout crowd of 23,143 began chanting “Kobe, Kobe” with just more than nine minutes left as Bryant rested on the bench as the Lakers trailed by double figures. Soon, every dead ball was marked by a chorus of “We want Kobe,” the crowd caring not about the Bulls’ fight for their playoff life but simply getting to see one last glimpse of Bryant.
They got it when Bryant checked back in with 3:08 left. He’d hit two free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer. His final shot at the United Center was an 18-footer that rattled out after he shook Mike Dunleavy for an open look.
Bryant checked out with 45.3 seconds left, to a rousing standing ovation. That was more than enough for him.
“I’m really, really at peace with this,” Bryant said.MORE NEWS: No Communication With Firefighters Before Baby Was Found Dead Outside Fire Station; Could Baby Boxes Be A Last-Resort Option In Cases Like This?
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.