He’s unlikely to have another 81-point game. He won’t close out his career with a sixth NBA championship. He isn’t the player he was in his prime.
But he’s still Kobe Bryant.
And as he prepares to visit New Orleans with the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday, that still means something.
“When he walks on the court, he’s more than a basketball player,” Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson said. “He’s just a legend. There’s players that you play against on a daily basis and you’re like, ‘I got this guy tonight.’ Then there’s Kobe.”
Since the 37-year-old Bryant announced in November that this, his 20th NBA season, will be his last, his stops around the league have taken on added significance. And though Thursday’s game is not his final scheduled stop in New Orleans — the Lakers return on April 8 — it’s his first visit since announcing his retirement.
It will mark Bryant’s 40th career game against New Orleans, assuming he plays. He’s listed as questionable with a sore right shoulder and rests periodically in an effort to play through the end of his final season.
“I try to get ready as much as I can to be ready to perform,” Bryant told reporters recently of his approach to sitting out games. “I think the fans deserve to see me out there. If I can’t be out there, it’s for a serious reason.”
Though Bryant’s production has dropped off — he’s averaging 16.4 points per game, the fourth-lowest average in his career — he remains an attraction in Los Angeles and beyond. His retirement announcement in November sent ticket prices soaring for his final stops in NBA arenas.
That’s a testament to a 20-year career in which Bryant has established himself as one of the league’s all-time greats. His 33,155 points rank third in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone and ahead of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
“For the longest time, I told everybody I thought that he was the best player in the game since Michael Jordan,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said when Bryant announced his retirement. “Over the course of his career, I think he’s kind of proven that from a competitive standpoint and the will to win and what he’s been able to do.”
Bryant can’t do some of those things anymore. He’s closing out his career as a veteran leader on a team headed for the NBA draft lottery. He’s adapting to that role, and still showing flashes of the old Kobe.
In a win against the Timberwolves on Tuesday, Bryant scored a season-high 38 points.
“The goal was always to win championships,” Bryant told reporters after that game. “In that sense, it’s crazy. It’s like mice looking for cheese in a maze with blindfolds on. It kind of feels weird to not have that thing that you’re going after. But still I find joy in teaching these young guys as much as I possibly can and showing up and playing as hard as I can.”