Imagine this. You’re at your local NBA team’s home game in front of a sold out crowd. Your team trails by four points with under three minutes to play, and your franchise player just got fouled on a three point attempt.
The next thing you know, thunderous boos echo across the stadium. Wait what? Not only after the whistle was blown, but throughout all three free throw attempts. How does this happen? How did we get here?
Welcome to the #KobeFarewellTour
Before the season started, Kobe Bryant was asked if he was going to announce his retirement before the season, so that he could soak up the gratitude of opposing fans during his final stop in each city.
His response, in summary, was that he didn’t want a Derek Jeter-style farewell tour. Even after announcing his retirement, he was adamant that there would be no glorious sendoff.
We all know Kobe better than that.
Even in his retirement announcement, “Dear Basketball,” Kobe couldn’t help himself. On the surface, it was thoughtful, reflective, and sad. But look a little deeper. He wrote it himself, in poem form, for a website that he bought most of the public stock in (The Players’ Tribune). The site crashed from the influx of views. Cha-ching go the advertising dollars.
Derek Jeter himself must be really jealous of the appreciation Kobe Bryant has gotten this season, because even The Captain did not receive nearly the treatment that I witnessed last night towards the (self-appointed) Black Mamba at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
I got the tickets from a friend, so I can’t confirm, but apparently they were a pretty tough ticket to get. This got me excited, because I knew it was going to be pretty much sold out and I would get a good crowd.
Boy, was I underselling it.
We show up in Indy about twenty minutes before tip-off and start walking towards the arena. Immediately from the moment I step out of the car I notice something strange. In all the crowds of people headed the same way as us, I only see Kobe jerseys. No exaggeration out of the probably two hundred people or more I encountered between the parking lot and the arena I didn’t see a single Pacers jersey.
A little weird, I thought, but probably a coincidence.
Five minutes later I’m inside the arena, just before the starting lineups are announced. The hundreds of people around me turn into thousands. And yet, despite now seeing the occasional Reggie Miller or Paul George jersey, there are still 80%-85% Lakers jerseys, mostly Kobe but also Shaq, Magic, and even one Derek Fisher jersey (a bold choice on the day he was fired).
As I’m riding the escalators up to the rafters where my seats were, I’m starting to realize that this is far from an average Pacers home game. In fact, it wasn’t a Pacers home game at all. Bankers Life Fieldhouse had been completely invaded, and overtaken by Lakers’ Nation.
Now I can’t speak for the Staples Center, seeing how I’ve never been there, but the stereotypical Lakers’ fan for me came in two forms: a skinny pubescent wearing a Kobe jersey (#24 version of course) and a Lakers snapback (backwards, naturally), or a foreigner wearing a Kobe jersey, Lakers pants (they make those?) and a Lakers beanie. Asian people LOOOOVE Kobe Bryant, which I’ve never totally understood.
I finally arrive at my seat (if I was on Everest up this high I’d need supplemental oxygen) and sit down. The row in front of me there are two Kobe jerseys. To my left there are at least four. In fact, as I look around there were probably twenty to twenty-five fake Kobe Bryant’s in my section alone!
The entire arena is splattered with yellow and purple. My estimate would be 70% Lakers “fans” or the type of people who say “bro I love the Lakers bro,” and 10% neutral fans, leaving 30% of people who were actually active Pacers fans.
Unfortunately history will not remember this night for what it really was: one of the most embarrassing displays of professional basketball I’ve ever seen. At one point in the THIRD quarter, the Lakers were shooting 28% from the field and 18% from three, and not to be outdone the Pacers were at 17% from three. The score through three periods: Pacers 64, Lakers 59.
But the action on the court was not nearly the story, because this crowd was a site to see. Every time Kobe got the ball there was a “Steph Curry just got the ball down three in Game 7 of the NBA Finals” level of anticipation.
A loud murmur that would rise to a fever pitch before almost always ending in a disappointed “aaaaawwww” after Kobe inevitably threw up another questionable shot and missed. Say what you will about Kobe, but the man always delivers when he’s called upon by the crowd. And through three quarters, what I mean by “delivers” is hurling up shots that would’ve been near impossible for prime Kobe to hit, every single time he got the ball.
On possessions where he didn’t get the ball, you could find him standing in the corner, one hand on his hip. The other four Lakers are running a motion offense. Kobe’s knees are locked. Then Kobe gets the ball, the team clears out, and he fires another one.
Through three quarters, Kobe was 2/17 from the field. This did absolutely nothing to dampen the feelings of the crowd. In times when Kobe was on the bench, the gym was dead. You could hear shoes squeak and players talking on defense.
I remember one particular moment where George Hill was at the free throw line in what might has well have been an empty gym. Suddenly, a player stands up from the Lakers bench and saunters over to the scorer’s table to check in. The crowd explodes in applause and cheers, mid free throw attempt! Hill bricks the free throw, but I’m not sure anyone in the crowd noticed.
With 4:15 left in the game, the Pacers’ 17 point lead has dwindled down to six, 77-71. Kobe takes a tough runner and misses, then collects the offensive rebound and hits a jump shot just outside the lane, what people in the basketball world would call a “trash bucket.” The crowd cheers. Finally he hit one, everyone thinks.
Paul George misses a three on the other end, leading to transition. Julius Randle barrels down the lane before kicking to Nick Young, who swings the ball to Bryant. Anticipation from the crowd. Kobe obliges, pulling the three point jumper. He nails it. The crowd goes wild.
I turn to my roommate who I’m sitting next to. Can you believe this? The away team just cut this to a one point game with three and a half to play, right?
Welcome to the #KobeFarewellTour
Myles Turner collects a (not-so-rare) Monta Ellis miss and scores. A low, almost inaudible cheer from the few Pacers fans left.
As the Lakers inbound the ball, the entire crowd chants, “KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!” I can’t help but smile. Where am I?
All eyes are on Mamba, including all ten players on the court. The Lakers run a pin-down action for Kobe in the corner, and Randle delivers a pass from the top of the key. Kobe fires. Swish. Tie ball game.
The arena explodes in one of the loudest cheers I’ve ever witnessed. Thousands of iPhones in the hands of thousands of snapback-wearing fans click happily. Is this real life? I pinch myself to check, but also to fight the desire to clap and cheer. This is what the fans came to see.
Welcome to the #KobeFarewellTour
The Pacers go back down the court, confusion reigning as I’m sure the players are unable to hear the plays being called. Ian Mahimi is called for a charging foul. More applause. That one wasn’t even Kobe, but everyone has lost their minds.
“KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!”
I’m feeling bad for the other Lakers players. They might as well pay for a ticket, because they are just spectators at this point. Bryant gets the ball at the top of the key, fueled by the deafening chants. He gets a high screen. What comes next happens in slow motion.
Kobe, the Black Mamba, pulls up from 27 feet, fades away, and shoots over the outstretched arms of both Paul George and Mahimi.
Everyone’s hands are in the air, people are jumping up and down, and the collective cheer probably gave me long term hearing damage. I can’t help it anymore and give in, clapping and cheering with the rest.
The score reads 82-79 Lakers with two and a half minutes to go. This has to be a dream.
The next possession, Kobe takes an even more difficult three. Brick. Julius “I’m just here to set you up” Randle grabs the offensive rebound and gets the ball back to Kobe. He takes a runner that airballs by several feet.
The crowd weeps, as reality sets in that Kobe is no longer the Kobe that earned five rings. Both literally and metaphorically, the game continues without him.
With 1:10 remaining, the Lakers still lead by four. Paul George is fouled on a three point attempt.
“BOOOOOOOOOO, BOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Goes the crowd.
As Paul George takes his free throws, a steady stream of loud, constant boos ring out in the arena. Paul George, the face of the franchise, being booed in this situation. Seriously.
Welcome to the #KobeFarewellTour
“I thought we was in L.A., that this was a road game,” George said after the game. “And for a second, man, it stunned me. The crowd going crazy. Getting booed at the free throw line, that’s probably the biggest thing I remember from tonight, being booed.”
Is this really what you want Pacers fans? I couldn’t imagine the feeling of George and the other Pacers fans, trying to pull out a close home game as the crowd enthusiastically backs the other team.
Isn’t this the franchise that fought Kobe for his first title in 2000? Isn’t Kobe the one that stopped Reggie Miller from winning titles for a decade?
“These fans were always very tough. It’s as close to a college basketball atmosphere as you can get,” Bryant later said. Not tonight it isn’t.
In ironic fashion, Paul George scored seven points in the last 71 seconds, including two possessions where he burns Kobe to the basket. Asked about it after the game, George pauses before telling the most honest words of the night, “well I mean, he is old.”
As the final seconds tick off of a Pacers victory, a disappointed crowd streams towards the exits. Kobe subs out with 11 seconds left, taking his curtain call.
His final stats: six of twenty-five from the field. Zero assists. The Lakers drop their 12th game in the past 14. But who cares?
After the game, I do nothing to restrain my applause. I was born in 1995, and Kobe was drafted in 1996. I literally do not know an NBA that does not include Kobe Bryant. I respect this man and his total dedication to the game of basketball, a game he has changed forever.
History will remember the 33,000+ points, the five championships, the MVP. But for me, when I think of Kobe, I’ll always remember this night on the #KobeFarewellTour, and the effect that Kobe had on the 18,000 fans present, turning one of the toughest fan bases in the NBA into putty in his hand.
Regardless how you feel about Kobe, that’s a testament to the legend of Kobe Bean Bryant, the Black Mamba.
By Matt Craig
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