SALT LAKE CITY — The Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour stopped Saturday night at Vivint Arena, where scores of yellow or purple Lakers’ jerseys dotted the arena, most featuring the numbers 8 and 24 — the two numbers Bryant has worn during his 19-year NBA career.
A sold-out crowd along with the largest media contingent in years was on hand to witness what may be the final time Kobe plays in Salt Lake City. We say may because the Lakers are scheduled to make one more appearance at Vivint Arena, on March 28. But considering how little Bryant has played here the past few years (never since January 2013, due to injuries) and how he’s already missed several games with various ailments this year, this might have been the last time for Bryant in SLC.
Bryant has been coming to town for nearly 20 years, since Dec. 4, 1996, to be exact. In that game, the Lakers were crushed by Karl Malone & Co., 101-75, a night in which Bryant scored just eight points on 2-of-6 shooting in 13 minutes off the bench.
Bryant’s numbers Saturday weren’t much different from 1996 as he finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting in almost 15 minutes of action. Bryant played much of the first half, but didn’t return for the second half because of a sore Achilles tendon. Also: the Jazz were already up by 24 points.
“I just hammed it pretty good and couldn’t shake it loose,” he said after the game.
In the pre-game introductions, Bryant was the first Laker player announced and got a mix of cheers and boos, with the cheers winning out.
Early on, Bryant was booed by part of the crowd every time he touched the ball, but that diminished as the game went on. Bryant missed his first three shots and got a lot of cheers when he scored his first points of the game on a technical free throw after a defensive 3-seconds call against the Jazz midway through the first quarter.
After being out for several minutes, Bryant hit a couple of shots early in the second quarter, a 15-footer from the right angle and a vintage Kobe fadeaway from the left baseline, both of which drew cheers from the Vivint Arena crowd. But after leaving at the 2:49 mark, he never returned.
Before the game Bryant spoke to the large media group and said he has “a lot of memories” of coming to Utah, including the famous “air-balls” in the final minutes and overtime (four in all) of the 1997 playoff game against Stockton and Malone and winning three playoff series a decade later against the Deron Williams-led Jazz.
He also has vivid memories of the crowds in Utah, which often have not been the nicest crowds he’s faced in his career, as he acknowledged before Saturday’s game.
“Yeah, they were really tough on me, more so than other crowds,” he said with a laugh. “They were tough — from signs, to literally yelling right in my ear while I was taking the ball out.”
Bryant recalled a time when the crowd especially got to him.
“It was ’08 in the playoffs and I just kind of erupted after a play and started talking back to the crowd,” he recalled. However, he holds no grudges toward the Jazz faithful.
“That being said, it’s fond memories, truly,” he said. “That’s what sports should be, I think, that kind of bantering and that kind of competition. So I’ve always loved playing here because of that.”
As for Saturday night’s crowd, he said, “It was awesome. I look forward to coming back here next time.”
Bryant was very candid in talking about how much tougher it is for him to play at age 37 after a couple of seasons with major injuries to his shoulder and Achilles tendon.
“It’s strange — if I could describe it, you don’t have the energy in the legs like you once had, the explosiveness, the continual motor,” he said. “Those things I’ve always taken for granted. I can run all day, but the legs don’t have the same amount of energy so you have to figure other things out.”
Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder spent a season coaching Bryant while an assistant for the Lakers during the 2011-12 season and plans on staying in touch after his retirement.
“I enjoyed initially just talking basketball with him,” Snyder said. “Really from there the things that I remember more were conversations about other things. The conversations went from old movies to Paul Newman, racing cars, Formula One and who knows where else. It was good to kind of break away and talk about life beyond basketball without outlining it and saying ‘hey we are about to talk about life.’ ”
“We were extremely close the year he was coaching for us and we would talk daily,” said Bryant. “l always knew he had a really bright basketball mind so I’m really glad to see the success that he’s having and I think it’s just the beginning for him.”
When asked what he’d do when he retired later this year, whether it be team ownership, coaching or broadcasting, Bryant said none of the above, although he didn’t say what he’d do.
“Ownership, in terms of being there day-to-day, or coaching or things of that sort don’t interest me, I just don’t have a passion for it, or broadcasting for that matter I don’t have a passion for it.”
Bryant also said he won’t come out of retirement to play in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
“When I say it’s my last game, it’s going to be my last game — I’m going to retire,” he said. “Then that’s it. It’s not like I’m going to walk off the stage, and say, ‘hold on one second.’ I think it’s pretty sweet to have the final game be in a Laker uniform.”
Assuming he stays healthy, that “final game” will be against the Jazz on April 13 in Los Angeles. And there might be one more Kobe farewell game in Salt Lake on March 28 when the Lakers come to town again.