By Lori Ewing
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO _ The night Kobe Bryant shockingly dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, he said, will go down as one of the most memorable moments of his career.
It was his late grandfather’s birthday, and his grandmother _ who didn’t attend many games because they made her too nervous _ had flown down to Los Angeles and was in the arena.
“From a personal standpoint, that game holds a tremendous amount of value, more than people think, aside from what took place on the court,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s offensive outburst that night _ Jan. 22, 2006 _ was the second-most of any player in NBA history. The Lakers had trailed by 18 points, but Bryant carried them to a 122-104 victory with a performance that included seven three-pointers.
Any ill will on the part of Raptors fans is long forgotten, it seems. They feted the retiring NBA superstar as he scored 21 points Monday night in Toronto’s 102-93 victory over Bryant’s Lakers.
The sell-out crowd of 20,163 fans at the Air Canada Centre was dotted with dozens of yellow No. 24 jerseys, and the way they cheered every Kobe touch of the ball, it was tough to tell at times which was the home team.
The night featured a video tribute to Bryant during a timeout that brought fans to their feet in a standing ovation. And when he sat down for a stretch during the second quarter, the fans cheered “We want Ko-be!”
“It felt absolutely amazing. Absolutely amazing,” Bryant said.
“They started chanting a little too early,” he added, laughing. “Like ‘Dude, give me five minutes.”’
He got another standing O when he left the game for good with 24.6 seconds left, and he saluted the crowd with a pat on the chest and a wave.
Bryant announced recently that he’ll retire at the end of this season, and will go out with five NBA titles, 17 all-star appearances, an NBA MVP award, and two Olympic gold medals.
He has struggled immensely with injuries the past couple of seasons _ he said Monday night that he constantly deals with the after-effects of three surgeries, including one to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon _ and his 29.6 shooting percentage is the worst of his career.
When a reporter mentioned his 8-for-16 shooting night Monday, he broke into a wide grin and said “50 per cent? Aw man! Finally!”
The 3-18 Lakers are creating a buzz wherever they go in this season of Kobe’s farewell tour. Rather than a post-game scrum in the locker-room, he spoke at a jam-packed news conference.
He ruminated on basketball’s life lessons, and talked about how he wants to be remembered.
“Hopefully I’ve had a great impact and been able to inspire kids to play the game of basketball, find the beauty in it that I found when I was a kid,” he said. “That’s the most important thing, helping kids be able to find themselves through the sport, be able to find an escape through the game of basketball.”
A reporter mentioned Steve Nash, who, while fighting injuries late in his career, said he wanted to “feel like himself again.” What is Bryant looking for?
“I’m not really looking for anything, I’m just taking the challenge of figuring out this age thing and trying to find the level of consistency where my game isn’t going up and down all the time,” the 37-year-old said. “But in terms of comfort or peace of mind, I’m completely fine.”
Bryant will be remembered as one of the game’s most polarizing players; but what made opposing players and fans hate him is much of what made him so good.
“I played with a chip on my shoulder, man. I didn’t care who was out there in front of me, my job was to try to make your night absolutely miserable. I came out there to destroy you,” he said.
“It’s not a very likable characteristic to have, but I found comfort in it. It’s not so much the fact that people didn’t like it, it’s the fact that I liked the fact that they didn’t like it.”
He has some fans in the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas posted a photo on Twitter after the game of the cast on his broken hand _ signed by Bryant.
“Sorry for the break my brotha! Stay strong!” Bryant wrote.
DeMar DeRozan has said he tried to model his game around the player he idolized growing up. He met Bryant when he was 16 at a camp the Lakers star was hosting for high schoolers, and a friendship developed between the two.
DeRozan is angry with the criticism Bryant is receiving in his final season.
“That man played at the highest level of basketball for (20) years, you’ve got to give him credit no matter how he goes out,” DeRozan said.
“He could average one point for the rest of the year, that don’t take away from him being one of the greatest of all-time.”