OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA —
At every stop, in every road arena, Kobe Bryant is reflecting on 20 years of memories and many great basketball games.
He's enjoying every second of this farewell ride despite all the losing, which isn't exactly how he intended to go into retirement.
The 37-year-old Bryant returned to Oracle Arena, the site of his first career 50-point game, but his Los Angeles Lakers lost 116-98 to the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors late Thursday.
"This place has always been a special place to play," Bryant said. "They've always been great fans. To have that appreciation from them tonight was pretty awesome. I was really stiff, but I thought it was the right thing to do, go back in the game and play and try to enjoy it one more time."
During pregame introductions, the Warriors showed a tribute from Lakers Hall of Famer and Golden State executive Jerry West with a highlight video on the main scoreboard. Fans in the sellout crowd — including retiring Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson, Oakland quarterback Derek Carr and Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin — chanted "Kobe! Kobe!" before a rousing ovation when his name was called.
Bryant waved, tipped his head and clapped his hands in appreciation.
He left to a warm ovation with 3:04 to play, saying "thank you" and waving after scoring eight points on 4-for-15 shooting to go with six rebounds in 27 1/2 minutes.
In honor of Bryant's five NBA titles, the Warriors gifted him with a five-day Napa Valley vacation with five wineries and five restaurants included. He also received a five-liter bottle from Amuse Bouche winery featuring a special label with his jersey.
Bryant received many a hug at midcourt from the Warriors beforehand. He started despite a sore right shoulder and a right Achilles strain, and made his first shot.
"He was fixated in not having a career. He was fixated on having an incredible career," West said during a pregame news conference, recalling the first NBA workout Bryant went through 20 years ago at age 17.
"For someone that age, it was remarkable the skill, the love that he had for the game and the desire to excel. The one thing that was very evident to me right away, this was a player at 17 years old, I had never seen someone with the skill that he had."
Bryant left a lasting impression on interim Warriors coach Luke Walton with his grit to play no matter what body part was hurting or how tired he might be, and they won two NBA championships during 8 1/2 seasons together with the Lakers.
"He was incredible. I've never, still to this day, ever seen anyone play through the stuff that he's played through. Early on in my career, I would think, `OK, well he's not going to be out there tonight and we have to step up and then after a while you just learn that he's playing no matter what unless someone takes him off the court," Walton recalled. "There was a game he couldn't even lift his right shoulder up above his head to shoot the ball so he started shooting it left-handed and finally that's when Phil [Jackson] pulled him out."
"That kind of hurt a little bit that he thought him shooting left-handed 3-pointers was more effective than passing me the ball. That's what made him such a great player."
This is the arena where Bryant produced his first career 50-point game, when he scored 51 on December 6, 2000. Golden State star Antawn Jamison also scored 51 that night in a 125-122 overtime win against the Lakers.
Bryant acknowledged it has been fun to see Golden State grow into a contender again after all the down years — but he has no desire to face Stephen Curry and these Warriors in the playoffs.
"No, I'm good. They play too well here," Bryant said with a grin. "If I had to and the challenge presented itself, of course I'd rise to the challenge. If I had a choice, absolutely not. I don't want to deal with this crowd."