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VOL. 131 | NO. 41 | Friday, February 26, 2016
Don Wade

Don Wade

Still Kobe, or a Reasonable Facsimile Thereof

By Don Wade

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Long before tip-off of Kobe Bryant’s last game in Memphis, Janice Brown was outfitted in her purple No. 24 Lakers jersey, Lakers cap, and holding a Kobe Fathead.

She stood by the tunnel through which her hero would jog onto court for his final game at FedExForum, a place where in 2007 he hung 60 points on the Grizzlies – the most by any NBA player in this building ever.

Brown, 41, was smiling, recalling the time a few years ago when she got Kobe’s autograph and took a picture with him.

“Bittersweet,” she said of her feelings now. “Because I know he’s not coming back.”

Apply layers to that comment if you wish. There was what Kobe was and, as we see night in and night out on his Farewell Tour, there is what he is.

Going into his last game here, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, let the record show, he had scored more points (1,603) against the Grizzlies than any other NBA player, and shot 45.7 percent from the field at FedExForum – his fourth-best percentage at any arena.

But at 37 and in his last season, Kobe has been neither prone to volume scoring nor efficient shooting. He isn’t Joe Namath hobbling to an inglorious end with the Los Angeles Rams nor Willie Mays tripping and falling in the outfield during a World Series game with the New York Mets, but it’s time to go.

Even so, that doesn’t mean he is incapable of manipulating Father Time in small moments. He hit the first shot he took Wednesday – a straightaway 3-pointer. He scored seven points in the first quarter, albeit taking seven shots to do it.

He finished with 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

The real lasting memory: The crowd’s chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!”

“I’ve had 20 great years,” he said afterward. “You can’t play forever.”

We didn’t get the Kobe-Tony Allen matchup we wanted – Allen sat out with a sore knee – but Kobe again gave Allen his defensive due: “He was the only one who really took the challenge of playing straight up.”

The only one who wasn’t afraid of him, he means.

Beyond his sheer talent and five NBA championship rings, it is the sense Kobe was always doing everything on his own terms that defined him and made fans like Janice Brown fall in love with him.

“He was cold-blooded,” she said. “I liked that.”

Phil Jackson could have an interesting conversation with her about the complications of Kobe, but that’s yesterday’s drama. So, too, the potential image-killing sexual assault allegation against Bryant, then 24, by a 19-year-old woman who worked at a Colorado hotel where the superstar was staying.

Criminal charges against Bryant ultimately were dropped (Bryant said it was a consensual encounter) and a civil suit against him ended in an out-of-court settlement. But there was a cost at home: a $4 million eight-carat purple diamond ring he bought for wife Vanessa.

Judging by the mass adoration being shown as he goes around the league, the incident no longer registers.

“It didn’t change my love for him,” Brown said. “People make mistakes off the court. He was still Kobe on the court.”

And for a little while longer he remains Kobe on the court. Not the best Kobe, not the most-feared Kobe, but one that can stir the echoes, still get the fans to throw on the purple and gold jerseys and come out one last time.

“I’ve played the majority of my career at a high level, to the point fans want to come out and watch. Especially now,” said Kobe, who is lugging around a mortal 17.1 scoring average this season, or eight points below his career average.

There was a moment in the second quarter against the Grizzlies when Kobe made a rocking back-to-his defender move to create space for a patented fade-away jumper over Lance Stephenson. The crowd gasped as the shot left his hands … and gasped again when he missed it.

But Kobe has missed more shots than anyone in NBA history, so what’s a few more?

Said Brown, while she can, “At least he’s still playing.”

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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