Less than two years had passed since Kobe Bryant last stood in the middle of the court at Staples Center, a microphone in his hand, declaring “Mamba out.”
In that time, the Lakers have made incremental steps toward reaching the heights to which Bryant carried them over the course of the 20 seasons that brought five championships. But it is a gradual process. For one night, the excitement and celebration that defined Bryant’s tenure returned in a flood.
Flanked by a row of basketball Hall of Famers, Bryant was once again showered with chants and cheers as two curtains were simultaneously lowered and the Lakers retired the two numbers he wore over the course of his 20 years with the organization.
The Lakers formally designated Nos. 8 and 24 as off limits to any future Lakers, creating a night out at Staples Center where a Lakers game once again served as the cross-section of Los Angeles glitz and glam.
Jack Nicholson was back in his courtside seat, and basketball legends from Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry West to Allen Iverson and Bill Russell were on hand to honor Bryant.
Bryant became the 10th Laker to have his jersey retired, but the first player in major professional sports to have two numbers retired by the same organization.
“We are retiring both your numbers,” Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss said, “because if you separated each of the accomplishments under those numbers each of those players would qualify for the Hall of Fame.”
Bryant beat his fist against his chest and pressed his palms together in a signal of appreciation.
“It’s not about my jerseys that are hanging up there for me,” Bryant said. “It’s about the jerseys that were hanging up there before. Without them, I couldn’t be here today. … It’s about embodying the spirit that exists in those jerseys up there and carrying this organization forward, so the next 20 years are better than the past 20 years.”
Through tears, Buss thanked Bryant for “staying loyal to the purple and gold and remaining a Laker for life when it might have been easier for you to leave.”
“We asked for your hustle,” she added, “and you gave us your heart – which was so much more.”
Among the Lakers legends on hand for the ceremony were West and O’Neal, as well as Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and James Worthy.
“To now be a part of that wall,” Bryant said before the game, “it means everything to me. I think legacy is really important in the sense of what we’ve done is awesome. But I think what’s more important for a legacy is how that affects the next generation.”
He grew up watching videos of those stars whose jerseys hang alongside his.
“The jerseys that hang in the rafters now,” he said, “the impact that they had on me, which led to us being in this moment right now. That’s the true mark of a legacy is how well it impacts the next generation.”
Bryant possesses a famous focus and work ethic, and said that early in his career he was driven by winning championships and becoming “one of the greats.”
“As you get older I’ve come to realize it’s really not about those things,” he said. “Those things carry a greater significance with them. It’s how well do you impact others? Not from the sense of fandom or whatever, through you actions, through your behavior, through your commitment to the game.”
Monday’s festivities were in many ways a reprise of Bryant’s final game on April 13, 2016. There were video tributes at every stoppage of play and celebrities galore. Chick Hearn Court, the street outside the north entrance of Staples Center, was transformed into Kobeland, with a Ferris wheel and lawn games.
It was over-the-top, right down to the private reception that featured hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar performing his hit, “Humble.” For the player O’Neal called on Monday “definitely the best Laker ever,” it was all fitting.
“Kobe, ever since he came in told me he wanted to be the greatest, greatest,” O’Neal said during the second quarter. “You could tell by his work ethic and the way he played. The conversation (for greatest Laker is) between him and Magic, but if you ask me I’m going Kobe then Magic.”
Bryant arrived at Staples Center more than two hours before tip-off with his wife, Vanessa, and their three daughters. Bryant had not been in the building for a Lakers game since his 60-point sendoff 20 months earlier, and on Monday Bryant pushed his 1-year-old daughter Bianka in a stroller, through a phalanx of photographers.
“I haven’t seen you guys in a while,” Bryant exclaimed.
Bianka Bella Bryant was born eight months after her dad played his final game for the Lakers on April 13, 2016, and before Monday had never seen him in a setting that defined the most visible two decades of his life.
“I’m proud that Bianka gets a chance to be in this environment,” Bryant said, “although she won’t remember any of it. It feels good as a father to be able to have my family come in and share the (moment).”
As he pushed the stroller past the crowd of media, Bryant was greeted with a hug from his longtime agent Rob Pelinka, now the general manager of the Lakers, as well as Johnson. The three men posed for photographs, then Johnson, whose No. 32 jersey was retired on Feb. 16, 1992, slapped Bryant on the back and said, “I’ll let you have your day.”
The night was absurdly exaggerated, as was Bryant’s career. And when the court was being cleared so the current Lakers could continue their game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Bryant made his way down the Lakers’ bench. He slapped hands with those on the bench, including Lonzo Ball, and let them get back to work.
It was a fleeting exchange, but a symbolic one nonetheless.
“The thing about sports,” Bryant said, “is that the chapters are coming, whether you like them or not. The stories are being written now, right? The legacies are being created now.”
For all of the hand-wringing that goes on about when the Lakers will return to glory, Bryant preached patience, and said that 15 years ago no one would have believed that he would be giving current NBA stars advice.
“As time goes on,” he said, “you’ll look back at this beautiful thing that’s being created. But in the moment it’s created, you don’t know. … You appreciate each day as it comes, and that’s what these players will do, and years from now, the fans will look up and say, ‘Man, they created a dynasty.’”
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) December 19, 2017
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 19, 2017