Bill Plaschke: Kobe Bryant has had a lasting bond with LA, and presently he reaches his final game

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 7:45 PM

Twenty years, crushed by a clenched fist, chewed by gritted teeth, disappeared beneath a solitary gloating march neither fueled by like nor slowed by hate.

Bill Plaschke: Kobe Bryant has had a lasting bond with LA, and presently he reaches his final game

LOS ANGELES_Twenty years, gone in the flash of a fadeaway swish.

Twenty years, crushed by a clenched fist, chewed by gritted teeth, disappeared beneath a solitary gloating march neither fueled by like nor slowed by hate.

He showed up on this city'south doorstep in the summer of one thousand nine hundred ninety-six as a teenage Laker with an adult prediction.

"Basketball is kind of love life, it can obtain coarse at times," said an eighteen-year-old Kobe Bryant. "You can obtain knocked on your butt ... but what you've to do is obtain up and keep your head high and try again."

He showed up at a Staples Middle news conference in the spring of two thousand sixteen as staggering proof of those words.

Bryant, thirty-seven, had just finished a Lakers game on the bench with his worn body mummified in bags of ice. His eyes were heavy, his shoulders sagged, and when later he stepped off the interview stage, his aching knees knocked and he stumbled forward in pain.

"Man, isn't this something?" he said with embarrassment and wonder.

Yeah, this was something. This was many things. This was greatness and recklessness, history and histrionics, immortality and indiscretion, championships and chaos.

This was a maddening, memorable twenty-year connection between basketball'south glamour star and its glamour city and, presently that it'south finally ending, this is the realization that, for better or worse, we'll never have a bond this long and enduring with an active sports superstar again.

Kobe Bryant will be playing his latest game as a Laker on Wednesday, and you'll not be alone if you weep. Or if you cheer. Or if you chant "M-V-P." ' Or if you just sigh with relief that the elderly ball hog is finally leaving the building.

He's the first player in NBA history to play 20 seasons with the same team. Yet those seasons have been filled with equal parts triumph and angst, chilling dramatics and foolish drama, all of it tightly wrapped in a ruthless alter ego Bryant named "the Black Mamba."

He scored the third-most points in NBA history. He also missed more shots than anybody in NBA history.

He once scored eighty-one points, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history. Yet he also once scored only one point, while taking just three shots, in the second half of a deciding playoff game against Phoenix, and then saying the Lakers needed better players.

He helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships, as many as Magic Johnson, who was considered the greatest Laker ever. Yet he'south also known for helping cost the Lakers as many as three more titles because of his inability to coexist with Shaquille O'Neal.

He was a league most valuable player once, an NBA Finals MVP twice, and an All-Star 18 times, second-most in NBA history. Yet because he was mostly known for his scoring, in recent rankings by ESPN and Sports Illustrated he didn't create the NBA'south all-time top 10.

As the most polarizing figure in the history of LA sports, Bryant was different things to different people. But his greatest strength was that, hero or villain, he was always true to himself.

He never stopped working. He never stopped competing. He never gave up the fight. And he never gave up on Los Angeles, because Los Angeles - ultimately overlooking his flaws to fall in like with his glamour and grit - never gave up on him.

Bryant'south youthful intensity helped carry the team to three consecutive NBA championships from two thousand to two thousand two even while he was openly bickering with fellow superstar O'Neal.

Shaq was traded, Kobe stayed.

Bryant was charged with sexual assault in two thousand-third after an admitted adulterous encounter with a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle Colo., but charges were later dropped when his accuser wouldn't testify. He publicly apologized and settled a civil lawsuit while his endorsements dried up and his jersey sales dropped.

The headlines faded, and Kobe stayed.

In the summer of two thousand seven, mad over being accused for the O'Neal trade and upset with a depleted roster, Bryant spent the summer demanding a trade, saying famously, "At this point, I'll go play on Pluto."

Pluto lost its planet status, the Lakers acquired the giant Pau Gasol, and Kobe stayed.

Between two thousand eight and two thousand ten, playing for the rejuvenated Phil Jackson, Bryant led the Lakers to three NBA Finals and two more championships while cementing his heritage as a leader.

Jackson wearily left, and Kobe stayed.

At the finish of the two thousand thirteen season, Bryant at thirty-fourth suffered a tear of his Achilles tendon that seemed to signal the beginning of the finish of his career. He'd play just forty-one games the following two seasons while his body was slowly breaking down.

Yet seven months after his injury, even before he returned to the floor, the Lakers gave him a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension as a reward for his service, and Kobe stayed.

Finally, on Nov. twenty-nine of this season, when it became obvious his skills had declined to the point that some statistics measured him as the worst player in the game, Bryant used a poem and a letter to fans to announce what he'd so long tried to elude.

Kobe was finally leaving.

The retirement sonnet, which appeared on the Players' Tribune website of which Bryant is portion owner, began "Dear Basketball" and detailed how Bryant was too worn down to continue playing the game he loved. The retirement letter, which was handed out at Staples Middle that night, thanked the fans for their support.

"When we first met I was just a kid," it began. "Some of you took me in. Some of you didn't. But all of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today."

So began a final act that, in typical Kobe Bryant fashion, was unlike any other in the history of American sports. Opening up to a world he never trusted, becoming accessible and embraceable after years of stony intensity, Bryant used the latest five months to flip the narrative on his life and career, erasing the darkness of a villain and crystallizing the glow of a hero. A Lakers career that began with four airballs in the final minutes of his first playoff series against the UT Jazz has ended in a brilliant swish.

Presently he's one latest stop, ending where he started, in LA on Wednesday night, in a game against Utah, and how'll you recollect him?

After a lifetime of gunning, the irony of Kobe Bryant is that his most compelling memories don't involve a particular shot.

There was the teamwork that began his running of greatness. Recollect his alley-oop pass to Shaquille O'Neal that clinched the Western Conference finals comeback win against the Portland Trace Blazers in two-thousandth?

There was his celebration that ended the running of greatness. Recollect him standing on the Staples Middle scorer'south table, his arms outstretched, basking in the clamor and confetti of the two thousand ten Finals triumph over the Boston Celtics?

Maybe you'll recollect him biting his jersey in concentration. Or maybe biting his lip on that summer afternoon when he tearfully acknowledged his unfaithfulness to wife Vanessa. Or maybe biting his tongue in pain on that April night when he actually shot, and sank, two free throws after he tore his Achilles tendon in what were considered his toughest points ever.

He never wanted to win our hearts, he just wanted to win. Yet in the end, laying himself bare to LA for two decades as basketball deity and flawed human, Kobe Bryant somehow did both.

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