Lakers’ Kobe Bryant says farewell tour has matured him

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — A life-long worth of frustration over the Lakers’ 2004 NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons caused Kobe Bryant to hear the same thing.

“For about a year straight, all I heard was ‘Detroit basketball’ in my head,” Bryant mused.

But prior to the Lakers’ ugly 111-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Bryant heard something beautiful. As Bryant took the floor on what would mark his last game ever in Detroit, Bryant heard the Piston’s public address announcer John Mason capture his life-time achievements through the next minute.

“And now at 6’6″ and 212 pounds from Lower Merion High School, making his final appearance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in his 20th NBA season, 17-time NBA All-Star, four-time NBA All-Star MVP, 15-time member of the All-NBA team, two-time NBA Finals MVP, five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and third all-time leading scorer ever in the history of the NBA, certainly he has given us some great memories over the years,” the announcer said breathlessly. “How about a big round of applause for right now on the floor. No. 24. The Black Mamba. Kobe Bryant!!!”

The sell-out Pistons greeted Bryant loudly. He tapped his fist over his heart twice before waving to the crowd and saying, “Thank you.” Nearly two hours later, the warm greeting assuaged Bryant’s uneasiness regarding another Lakers’ loss and a stomach illness.

“This entire process, unfortunately, has made me more mature,” Bryant said with a laugh. “But I’ve been extremely thankful to have this, to be able to see this process and to be able to enjoy these moments. If anything, it just made me realize how fortunate I’ve been to be able to play for so long.”

It also made Bryant realize that apparently old rivalries can contain sentimental moments.

“We’ve hated each other for so long,” he said. “A lot of respect and mutual admiration comes from that. It’s like, when you have an opponent that you’re going up against, neither one backs down. You just challenge and you bring out the best in each other for years and for years and for years. When the time comes to say goodbye, you’re very appreciative of that. It’s like you have protagonist and antagonist just going at each other the whole time. One never really wants to kill the other because they bring the best out of you. I think right now, that’s just what you’re seeing. It’s just the mutual respect that we have.”

Bryant has shared plenty of respect to the Pistons over the years. Although he has accepted that his career will end with five NBA championships, Bryant still remains bothered with the Lakers losing to Detroit in five games in the 2004 NBA Finals. Yet, Bryant argued that the Pistons “were better than us.” Bryant also disputed the popular theory that the Lakers would have won their third NBA title in four years had Karl Malone not gotten injured during the series. Bryant also remembers how the Pistons beat the Lakers in the 1989 NBA Finals.

While the Lakers won through superstar glitz and glamour, the Pistons won through gritty play.

“There’s different ways to win championships,” he said. “You have to go with the DNA of the players that you have on your roster. At the time, the Showtime Lakers and the [Boston] Celtics, they all had their own identity. The Pistons said you know, we’re not going to be like them. We’re going to try to win championships and win them our way and with our style. As a kid growing up, that taught me a valuable lesson. There’s not one formula to win championships. You have to go with what you have and do the best job of that.”

The Lakers (3-17) are obviously far removed from the NBA championship picture. Bryant has not played anywhere close toward his career averages. In Sunday’s loss to Detroit, Bryant posted five points, while shooting 2 of 15 from the field and 1 of 6 from 3-point range in 26 minutes before sitting out the fourth quarter. Bryant did not score until he launched a 24-foot 3-pointer with 7:35 left in the third quarter. That shot sent the legions of Bryant fans here in a tizzy despite the Lakers trailing by 23 points.

“Tonight was crazy to get a name chanted here in Detroit and chants of encouragement when I made a shot here or there,” Bryant said. “It’s a beautiful feeling. It’s something I never thought I’d see.”

So as Bryant heard Mason gush over his accomplishments and Pistons fans marvel over his presence, the Lakers 37-year-old star thought back to a time when he sparked the exact opposite response.

“We’ve had so many great battles here,” Bryant said. “The intensity of the fans here in the arena is something that I’ll never forget.”


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