For the past 20 years, you’ve either loved him or hated him.
On Friday night, it was mostly all of the former as Kobe Bryant transformed the Smoothie King Center into Staples Center South. As expected, Kobe jerseys were scattered all throughout the pro-Lakers crowd on one of the final stops of his farewell tour.
It’s just what Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry expected, especially when he arrived at the arena.
“There were 5,000 folks in line, and 4,000 of them had on Kobe jerseys,” Gentry said prior to tipoff. “It will be very much like playing on the road.”
Rashard Tate, from Jackson, Mississippi, was one of the first to arrive, getting to the arena three hours before tipoff.
Rizgar Haji and three of his friends came from Nashville, Tennessee, taking an unconventional route because they couldn’t find any direct flights. They flew from Nashville to Dallas to Mobile, Alabama, then rented a car and drove to New Orleans. They sat in Section 119 in seats that they paid $1000 for.
“I’m 24 years old, and I’ve been watching him forever,” Haji said. “I can tell you every record he has.”
It was also the first time Nick Garrett and his wife, Donyale, from Zwolle had seen Bryant play. They paid $400 for their tickets.
The Black Mamba wasted little time giving his fans their money’s worth, draining a deep 3-pointer for the first points of the game. The “Kobe! Kobe!” chants started moments later, then came again when a video tribute was played with 2:37 left in the quarter. He scored 14 points in the opening quarter.
He didn’t score again on a night he shot just 4 of 15. He even missed a wide-open lay-up on what would have been a highlight-reel dunk in his younger years.
It didn’t seem to matter on this night. The cheers rang out almost every time he touched the ball.
He even did something Friday night that he said he had never done before: He checked back into the game late in the fourth quarter because of the “We want Kobe!” chants that rang throughout the Smoothie King Center.
“To be able to experience this love is crazy,” Bryant said.
That wasn’t always the case for Bryant, once one of the more polarizing players in the league.
“The one thing about KB is he enjoyed being the villain,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “He liked going into the arenas and people hating him, or acting like they hate him. When he played, you either hated him or loved him. There was no in between. He relished it. That’s what made him so great. He enjoyed tearing people’s hearts out.”
The hatred has disappeared, as has been shown during his final last lap around the NBA.
New Orleans, the third-to-last road stop of his career, has been quite kind to him.
He came into Friday’s game with a 15-6 record in the city, averaging 28.6 points per game in the Big Easy. That includes the memorable 40- and then 50-point outbursts in New Orleans Arena during the seasons when the New Orleans franchise relocated to Oklahoma City.
Scott was coaching against Kobe on those nights. Now he coaches him, and he has seen just how much fans have embraced Bryant in his 20th season.
“I think he’s going to have a connection to pretty much every arena that he’s played,” Scott said. “When you play 20 years, and you’ve played in all these arenas — and he’s played in some new ones as well in (that) 20-year period — you’re going to have some type of connection with some — some more than others. And (New Orleans) might be one of those places that’s a little bit more than others because of the fact that (Bryant had big games) after Hurricane Katrina, my connection with the organization at that time, our connection together and just the circumstances.”
On Friday, it was Gentry on the New Orleans sideline trying to slow Bryant one last time.
“He’s given a lot of heartache to a lot of people,” Gentry said. “But I think everybody appreciates his legacy and what he has done for the game.”
Ryan Anderson, one of the Pelicans who spoke during the first-quarter video tribute, grew up in Sacramento and had to endure watching Kobe break the heart of his hometown Kings’ during those epic L.A.-Sacramento battles.
“I hated you, but I respected you,” Anderson said during the tribute.
It was hard not to respect his 20 years in the league.
Bryant will wrap up his career Wednesday night, finishing with five NBA titles and as the game’s third-leading scorer.
“The game is much bigger than scoring points and winning championships,” he said. “It’s really about if you have been able to move or inspire somebody for a brief moment to want to be a better version of themselves. Hopefully I’ve done that. The fans have certainly done that for me.
“They have inspired me to try to be the best version of myself. That’s what the game is really all about. When you retire and the championship trophies are sitting there and dust collects on them, you want to create something that stands the test of time.”
Kobe did just that.
His fans showed Friday night just how much they appreciated it.