By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
The final game of the NBA regular season between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz on April 13 didn’t carry any playoff implications, but all eyes were glued to the nationally televised game in LA for the final appearance of future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
The 20-year veteran shooting guard came onto the court for the last time in a Laker uniform to tremendous applause, and was greeted by sports and Hollywood elite – including former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, and long-time Lakers fan Jack Nicholson. Some fans spent hundreds of dollars for nosebleed seats, just to see their favorite player one last time.
Bryant didn’t disappoint. He immediately took over each offensive possession for the Lakers, shooting 13 of the first 22 shots. Bryant played with reckless abandon, putting on a show for the 19,000-plus fans at the Staples Center – he finished the game with 60 points, including a dominant stretch in the fourth quarter that gave him one final victory in purple and gold.
Some criticized Bryant for shooting the ball 50 times in the game, but Bryant went out with exactly the type of gusto fans expected from the 11-time All-NBA First Team guard.
Bryant’s career was by any metric one of the most successful in NBA history. His 33,643 points ranks third all-time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, and he finished his career with five NBA Finals Championships, including two Finals MVP trophies. Bryant was a polarizing figure, as confident in his game as he was brash in his public comments. He was loved by millions of adoring fans, and hated by millions of others.
Bryant was also the only player to take the torch from Michael Jordan, a player that changed the game dominated by big men and deft point guards to one ruled by ball-dominant shooting guards. Jordan played a game predicated on winning isolation matches and averaging 25 points a game, and as the league’s biggest star his style became part of the NBA brand. A slew of players who compared stylistically to Jordan emerged in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, including Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and even Dwyane Wade. But only Bryant matched Jordan’s intensity and competitive desire.
To be a pro athlete, one has to be competitive. However, players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan take competitiveness to a whole new level. When facing adversity, these players rise up in anger, and allow frustration to fuel their game. Jordan and Bryant were the very best in the world, and no one could tell them any different.
In the current NBA, flow offenses and sharpshooting have taken the place of the ball-dominant shooting guard. Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry has averaged 7.3 attempts per game from beyond the 3-point line in his career, compared to legendary sharpshooter Reggie Miller’s career average of 4.7 per game.
Big men no longer live in the paint, as elite young centers like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns are already honing their long-range game. Golden State plays a high percentage of minutes with 6-foot-7-inch Draymond Green manning the center position. The game has changed.
So with Bryant’s final outing, we’ve seen the end of two distinct eras. Bryant truly was as close as we’ve ever gotten to another Michael Jordan, and his retirement signals the end of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s style of basketball that many fans still cling to.
Bryant’s retirement also closes a 20-year chapter in Laker lore that included public spats, tremendous on-court achievement, off-court distractions, trade demands and ultimately, one heck of an interesting storyline every game. Bryant went out the only way he could: guns blazing, eager to prove one last time that in any given minute, he could be the best player in the world. Love him or hate him, he was good for basketball, and I’ll miss him.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.