LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant drove by L.A. Live on his way to his big night and glanced over at thousands of people who had come from all over to celebrate him at a “Kobeland” street festival complete with a Ferris wheel.
“I was like, ‘What?'” Bryant said.
Bryant then walked into Staples Center, pushing his daughter Bianka in a stroller amid a horde of cameras and reporters capturing and following his every step. Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka greeted him, and the night so many in L.A. had eagerly awaited was finally here.
Bryant had both his No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys raised to the hallowed corner of Staples Center where jerseys of other Lakers legends reside.
Kobe Bryant saw the young Lakers force overtime against the Warriors, but then Kevin Durant’s jumper in the extra session gave the Warriors their ninth straight win.
For Bryant, it was all still something he couldn’t wrap his mind around, despite a storied 20-year career, all with one franchise, that included five NBA titles, one MVP award, two NBA Finals MVPs, 18 All-Star appearances and one legendary work ethic.
“It is hard to put into words,” Bryant said of the moment. “Growing up and watching all these great players play and learning so much from them, to now be a part of that wall means everything to me. Legacy is really important in the sense of what we have done is awesome, but what is more important for a legacy is how that affects the next generation. For the jerseys up there now, the impact it had on me, which led us to this moment now is the true [indication of a legacy].”
Outside Staples Center, fans of all races, genders and ages filled the street to celebrate the night and “Kobeland,” which featured interactive games in addition to the Ferris wheel. Hundreds more stood in long lines to get into the building hours before the game against the Golden State Warriors.
“He’s everything in this city,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said.
Pelinka, who was Bryant’s longtime agent, said a week ago that his old client and close friend dreaded this night. Pelinka said Bryant is uncomfortable being honored like this.
The Lakers extended halftime for a 21-minute ceremony that included a video tribute, a couple of guest speakers, the reveal of the jerseys and Bryant’s address to the fans.
During the ceremony — which started with a showing of Bryant’s short animated film “Dear Basketball” — Johnson introduced Bryant as “the greatest who ever wore the purple and gold.”
“For 20 years, he thrilled us and made us scratch our head — what did we just see and witness — and he gave us five NBA championships,” Johnson said. “I hope that you recorded every game and I hope you are doing the same thing tonight because there will never ever be another Kobe Bryant.
“Who can remember when he scored 81 points in a game?” Johnson continued. “And last but not least, there will never be an athlete in his last performance to top this man’s performance, 60 points! Man! … Kobe, Jerry West called me the day you worked out and he said, ‘Earvin, I just witnessed the greatest workout I have ever seen in my entire life,’ and Jerry, you were absolutely right.”
Magic Johnson called Kobe Bryant “the greatest who ever wore the purple and gold” during Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony Monday night. Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Several Warriors, including Kevin Durant and coach Steve Kerr, stayed on the court and watched while the Lakers came out of the locker room to observe the festivities. Some of the greatest to ever play the game were on hand, from Allen Iverson to Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Elgin Baylor.
Bryant shared a few moments with Iverson and former teammates, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher and Walton. He gave point guard Lonzo Ball a hug as he shook hands with several current Lakers.
The seats in the stands remained packed during halftime as fans serenaded Bryant with “Kobe, Kobe” chants.
“We need you right now,” Johnson said to Bryant. “When I look into the audience, there are all races of people that come together and cheer you on for 20 years, and this country needs to come together, and you were able to bring us together as a city of Los Angeles for 20 years.”
Lakers primary owner Jeanie Buss’ voice cracked as she thanked Bryant.
“Kobe, I thank you for staying loyal to the purple and gold and remaining a Laker for life when it might have been easier for you to leave,” Buss said.
Bryant thanked the fans and his friends, former teammates and peers, and family, before addressing his three daughters, who were sitting courtside. “If you do the work, work hard enough, then dreams come true,” he said. He ended by dropping his famous sign-off.
“Mamba out,” he said.
O’Neal said Bryant will go down as “definitely the best Laker ever” and that he and Bryant will be remembered as the “best Laker duo ever.”
“We will be remembered as the most enigmatic, controversial, dominant one-two punch ever created, aka the best Laker duo ever,” said O’Neal, who sat in the front row along the baseline for the most raucous home game of the season by far. “That includes Magic and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. You can tell them I said it.”
O’Neal said he has many favorite Bryant memories to choose from.
“The Game 7 lob, the shot they showed on the [big] screen against Portland when the ‘Kobe Stopper’ Ruben Patterson was guarding him, there are a lot of great moments, and I’m just glad I was here to be a part of it,” said O’Neal, who had just watched a video of some of Bryant’s most memorable highlights. “I am probably the most dominant Laker, but I never wanted to be the greatest. Kobe, ever since he came in, always told me he was going to be the greatest, and you can tell by his work ethic and the way he played. The conversation [for best in franchise history] is between him and Magic. But if you ask me, I am more Kobe.”
Ball also cited Bryant’s pairing with O’Neal.
“I watched all of Kobe and Shaq,” Ball said. “That was my favorite duo when I was little. Those two, the best shooting guard with the best center, was tough to deal with, so, definitely, I watched them all the time.
“Just watching Kobe, I love his mentality. Not scared of nobody, always wants to win and very competitive, that’s the biggest thing. … I think [Kobe as No.] 24 was just more mature; 8 was more athletic in my opinion, but 24, he had all the footwork down by then, pretty much mastered scoring. He was unguardable.”
In his pre-ceremony media conference, Bryant fielded and answered questions in English, Spanish and Italian. He was asked which number he would want if he was forced to pick one to go on a statue.
“If they do a statue, you don’t necessarily have to see the number anywhere,” Bryant cracked. “And if they do hair, it is a dead giveaway — 8 has something that 24 will never, never, never have. That is the ability to grow hair.
“[No.] 24 was more challenging, and I tend to gravitate toward things that are harder to do,” Bryant continued. “Physically, it was really, really hard to get up night after night, taking on the Boston Celtics having a bone fragment in my foot, a broken finger, muscling through that back half of my career. I guess if you forced me, I probably would go with 24 because of that.”
Bryant, whose obsession with basketball comes with its own legacy, said he has had several former players check in on him since his retirement after the 2015-16 season.
He said his current daily routine involves working out at 5 a.m., taking his kids to school, eating breakfast with his wife, Vanessa, going to his office, and then picking up his kids and taking them to volleyball, basketball and soccer practices.
“I had a lot of players, former players, come up to me genuinely concerned, ‘Are you going to be OK?'” Bryant said. “I said yeah. They said, ‘Listen, it is going to be progressive. First week is going to be a serious state of depression. Second week, you will be angry. Third week, you will start coming around and there will be a level of acceptance.’ What the f—?”
Bryant said he is eager to see what is ahead for the Lakers, who are rebuilding with 20-year-old former No. 2 overall picks in Brandon Ingram and Ball. The Lakers are 10-18 this season after their 116-114 overtime loss to the Warriors.
“The thing about sports is the chapters are coming whether you like it or not,” Bryant said. “Stories and legacies are being created right now.”
As for who would win in a one-on-one game between No. 8 Kobe and No. 24 Kobe, Bryant played it down the middle.
“It depends,” Bryant said. “If [No.] 8 is playing [No.] 24 after he ruptured his Achilles, then it is a problem for 24. If 24 is playing 8 after he tore his shoulder, then it is a problem for 8.”