Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that Bryant was drafted by the Lakers. He was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets. This version has been corrected.
You don’t come to see the Lakers anymore. You come to see Mamba. You come to see Kobe. You come to see the most decorated NBA player since Michael Jordan step back and swish, turn back the clock and light it up, to remind you when he was young — because that makes you feel young.
You don’t look at the 5-14 record. You don’t look at what poses now in L.A. as a supporting cast — lost-looking Jeremy Lin, aging war horse Carlos Boozer and the irrepressible Nick Young, declaring himself open as he disembarks the team bus.
No. You look at Kobe, come to pay homage to him like he’s Derek Jeter out of a pennant race or Wayne Gretzky playing his last season for a woeful Rangers team.
You come to see what was, not what he is anymore.
“You’re still doing it!” says Howard Eisley, the former Utah Jazz guard and now an assistant coach with the Wizards, grasping Kobe’s hand for the pull-in hug.
It is about 30 minutes after Kobe had 29 points on 14 free throws and 22 shots in 34 minutes of a game the Lakers were eventually ground down in by the wonderfully deep Wizards.
“You’re still doing it,” Eisley says again.
“Man, you used to tear me up on those pick-and-rolls,” Kobe says, smiling.
This seemed like the usual NBA postgame scene, whereby an old sage pays respect to the guy entering his 19th season. But it was more for Kobe. You could tell.
He needs this kind of affirmation from people who know the game. His Achilles’ reconstructed, his body finally back after so much wear and tear and rehab, Kobe needs to be validated as a prime-time star still at 36.
Otherwise, what’s the point? He knows his team is going nowhere. He gets asked questions about dealing with his “new reality” as if he has lost loved ones to some horrible disease.
“The nature of the beast,” he says, simply of a roster turnover that will never take him to an eighth NBA Finals appearance. “It happens. It’s just a process. It involves a lot more teaching.”
He calls himself a “true competitor,” and what he means by that is that he plans to stick around these final two years and do all he possibly can to grow this franchise back into the champion he once knew.
The truth is this is as it good as it can get for the Lakers, the triple-parlay from the basketball gods:
Kobe finishes as the scoring champion, showing prospective free agents he can still play and fill it up with the best of them. Meanwhile, the Lakers finish with one of the league’s worst records and luck into drafting 6-foot-11 Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. Oh, and the Cavaliers completely implode and Kevin Love leaves LeBron and comes home to play with Kobe.
Yeah, it’s unlikely to go down like that. What is more plausible is the Lakers are going to lose more than 50 games in back-to-back years, and Kobe is going to have to fight his utmost craving to be in the playoff spotlight again while the Lakers rebuild with one of the greatest players in league history still as their featured attraction.
Byron Scott mentioned Kobe might play after his deal expires in 2016, maybe sign for one more year if a great team awaits him. Asked about it after the game Wednesday night, he doesn’t sound as optimistic as the Lakers.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he says. “Right now I’d say no. Could that change a year from now? Maybe.”
Crazy, no, Kobe Bryant is now what Byron Scott was to the Lakers in his final season as a player in the NBA — the wizened veteran teaching the young bucks how to play, albeit still a guy who could detonate for 40-plus on any given night.
“Obviously the guy I talked to was him,” Scott says of his final year with the Lakers, coincidentally Kobe’s rookie year. “When he came in the league, I was the 36-year-old talking to the young fella because I knew he had unbelievable potential.
“And he has been extremely patient because he understands the process as well, that this is going to take some time.”
Kobe is going to pass Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list before Christmas. When Kevin Garnett retires, he will be one of the last of his generation to still lace ’em up on a nightly basis.
As John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat put away the Lakers down the stretch with a menacing three-pronged assault on offense, one of the more entertaining moments from Wednesday night was seeing Kobe and Paul Pierce, 37 and going strong, jawing back and forth as if it was 2002.
“It’s refreshing to see someone that came up from my era still playing,” he says smiling. He adds that players don’t “talk trash” like they used to.
For the Kobe loyalists, the end of the game was painful. He chucked up an ugly three-pointer late and then fell down as he was trying to back into the post in the final minutes, losing the ball and soon the game.
For all the scintillating moments, the realization was he simply didn’t have enough help to beat a vastly deeper and more talented team.
No one died. No one suffered a career-ending injury. But seeing Kobe Bryant teaching a 5-14 team how to win doesn’t seem like a fitting end for a five-time NBA champion.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.