“John, if I was 23, I wasn’t going to catch you and I’m not going to chase you,” Bryant said.
“You couldn’t catch me then and you can’t catch me now,” Wall said back as they shared a smile.
This is happening all the time now, Bryant superstar smiling and joking during games. Not ironically smiling at a bad call or perceived challenge, but being generally good natured with an opponent.
“A lot of people say that he’s an a–h—,” Wall said. “When he’s stepped on the court you should want to rip someone’s head off, that’s been his mindset. But you’ve got to think, it’s over. It’s his last time playing guys. He’s having fun, he’s enjoying his last ride.”
Bryant has been doing this all season, laughing at moments when his opponents show him up. Dirk Nowitzki dupes him with a post move. He smiles. An airball after he gets smothered on defense by a young, unknown Hollis Thompson in Philadelphia. He laughs. Wall smokes him on a break, forcing a foul. He jokes.
The 2014 Bryant wouldn’t recognize this one. Imagine if, even a year ago, you gave Bryant a crystal ball that showed him missing 19 shots and his Los Angeles Lakers embarrassing itself by losing to a team that was 0-18 like what happened Tuesday to the Philadelphia 76ers. He’d have slapped the ball out of your hand and cursed you out before the clip of him blowing kisses to the Philly crowd showed up.
What has become clear is this is going to be one long, surreal final tour for Bryant. The NBA has never seen anything like it. Beloved future Hall of Famers have had swan songs, but not with the play of the team becoming a sideshow and Bryant’s often horrific play being totally diluted as fans clamor to capture every available second and make it part of their social media profile.
The behavior is such a departure from the Kobe everyone knew for the past 19 years that it’s still a little shocking to observe. If the past two nights are any indication, Bryant’s last loop around the league is going to be varying degrees of bizarre. There could be a novella written about every stop.
Drunken fans wandering into news conferences in Philadelphia, a wild-eyed fan sprinting from his seat at the final horn to get to shake Bryant’s hand at center court only to be blocked by Washington Wizards players getting in line to do the same.
Wednesday was one of the nights he’ll remember — it shouldn’t be hard because he has a film crew he hired following him around to document it. That didn’t happen on the Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rocking chair tours. Then again, those guys didn’t have special logos created for their “hero/villain” retirement marketing campaign or a $32 hat celebrating their final season on their personal website.
Bryant scored 31 points and hit five baskets in a throwback fourth quarter. This as he was playing the fourth game in five nights on a journey that went from Portland to Los Angeles to Philadelphia to D.C.
The crowd roared with glee after every make. Signs praising Bryant danced through the crowd. Hundreds of phones recorded his every move as he came and left the court. Everywhere he walked in the backstage area of the arena, conversations stopped and people stared as he moved through the hallways.
It was like Bryant was the president, which is understandable considering the man currently in that job cleared time to meet with him at the White House on his last visit to Washington.
Playing the worst season of his career, abandoning the relentless edge that wasn’t just a trademark but a way of life, Bryant’s retirement announcement has turned him from a superstar into some sort of deity. And it sure seems like this scene is going to repeat itself for a while.
That the Wizards had just suffered a pretty disappointing loss to one of the worst teams in the league, their fifth loss in the last six games, didn’t seem to matter that much. Much like the night before, Bryant had a receiving line of opposing players to go through. Thousands of fans stayed in their seats, waiting for Bryant to leave the floor like it was a throwback to Elvis.
“When he’s stepped on the court you should want to rip someone’s head off, that’s been his mindset. But you’ve got to think, it’s over. It’s his last time playing guys. He’s having fun.”
John Wall on Kobe Bryant
“It felt bad that we lost,” Marcin Gortat said. “But I’m glad to have lived and played during his legacy.”
“I’m a huge fan. It’s an honor to play against him,” Bradley Beal said. “What he means to me, to all 2-guards, we love Kobe to death.”
“It’s a humbling experience and an honor to play against a legend like that,” Wall said. “This is what it is going to be like wherever he goes.”
Perhaps this will wane as the official news of his retirement moves out of the news cycle. It’s hard to see the San Antonio Spurs lining up to embrace Bryant next week when this show arrives in San Antonio.
But who can predict it, this is uncharted. Bryant’s “Channel the Villian” tagline didn’t foresee this. But unlike the merchandise, the logo and the letters Bryant’s team has designed, the emotions feel genuine.
Bryant certainly feels pressure to perform, to suit up no matter how sore or diminished he is, but the results don’t even seem to really matter. It’s a full-on lovefest, endlessly reverential yet a total spectacle.
There’s probably going to be some truly wonderful and truly weird moments over these next four months.
“To have that amount of appreciation and love,” Bryant said, “is just a really beautiful feeling.”