Cell phone cameras captured his every step once he exited the tunnel and entered the court at Philips Arena.
His two decades of playing in Staples Center South had come to an end on Dec. 4, 2015. His days of playing in the city he said he’d remember facing Dikembe Mutombo the most were over. The same Mutombo whose finger wag he impersonated after scoring nine straight points against Joe Johnson to give the Lakers a 77-71 lead in the fourth quarter a few years later. The city where Dahntay Jones stepped under him, a play a few argue changed the trajectory of his career.
After having an extended conversation with Stephen Jackson’s son in the hallway, Bryant walked inside a standing-room only media crowd waiting to ask the first ballot Hall of Famer questions for the final time.
Bryant was very gracious with the answers. He took his time and gave each reporter eye contact while responding. He said he still regretted the way the 2004 finals ended, he would miss the buzzing sound of lights you can only hear in an empty gym and he respected Dominique Wilkins for saying he was the last player to represent his era.
While the legacy and retirement questions were fresh, five days after he announced his decision to leave the game, he was the most competitive superstar in the sport since Michael Jordan. And he spent his twilight seasons in purple and gold on a team that started a 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell, a 21-year-old Julius Randle and a 23-year-old Larry Nance. The team’s veterans included the man who nicknamed himself “Swaggy P,” a sixth man who, at the time, was more famous for having two girlfriends, and the man who held the league record for longest suspension.
The Lakers went 17-65 that season, and everyone on the team appeared to enjoy it except Bryant.
We got blew out in Portland. He took everybody Kobe’s and said they couldn’t wear it cause we was soft— Lou Williams (@TeamLou23) January 28, 2020
The man who called Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal “lazy,” future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard “soft,” and routinely elbowed Sasha Vujačić in the chest during intrasquad scrimmages spent his last season not chasing Jordan’s sixth championship but on a rebuilding team.
So now back to the cramped media room in Atlanta.
After nine minutes, the question pops out.
“Do you ever give the young guys a tough time being that you’ve been on this team longer than they’ve been alive?”
He laughed at the not-so-serious question before locking back in to deliver his answer.
“No. I mean, only one player was trying to talk trash from the bench when I made that comment to him,” Bryant said while scratching his head. “He quickly didn’t say anything anymore because he understood how old I am, basically. But no. If anything, it’s just helping the young guys out more than anything.”
Bryant was a walking encyclopedia who was willing to share his knowledge to any inquiring mind.
In the second half of his career, he appeared to educate younger players more publicly. He once said he believed he never changed his leadership style except when he learned he had to adapt to every teammate’s personality before criticizing them. He had his players he complimented and guided near the end of his playing days: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker.
Those mentoring tendencies expanded a lot once he retired. Any player, star or role, on any level, Bryant was there to help the next generation of greatness. Bryant tried to mentor from afar, but Gigi Bryant brought him back to the place he belonged. Insert Jayson Tatum, Sabrina Ionescu, Gabby Williams, Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Napheesa Collier, Ricky Rubio, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Buddy Hield, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Neymar, Zendaya, Michael B. Jordan, Luka Dončić and Atlanta’s newest franchise player, Trae Young. Just to name a few people he took under his wing.
“His daughter was a big fan of mine,” Young said, in the same building but now renovated media room Bryant told reporters he wanted to help the younger generation four years ago. “He’s always trying to find new ways to help his kids learn. He found out about my trainer, Alex Bazzell, and he got in contact with him.”
Doesn’t matter if you’re WNBA ROY, National HS POY or one of the top 8th graders, the expectation of detail remains the same‼️ The future of the women’s game is in great hands! @azzi_35 @PHEEsespieces @DJSackmann @kobebryant pic.twitter.com/oRZee6Onob— Alex Bazzell (@alexbazzell24) December 23, 2019
That’s how Bryant and Young were introduced to one another.
Young has averaged 28.5 points and 11.5 assists since Jan. 26. He averaged 34 points and 15 assists since last Sunday before leaving the Dallas Mavericks game on Feb. 1 early with a right ankle sprain.
Kevin Keneely highlighted how on Jan. 26, Young became the first player to have a 45-point double-double with under 25 field-goal attempts against the Washington Wizards since Bryant. On Jan. 30, Young became the first player to score at least 25 points and 10 assists in a half since Bryant, per ESPN.
Bryant said he escaped the traps of post-retirement depression by keeping his hand in a couple of business ventures in addition to his mentorship and coaching duties. His mission of helping the younger generation even applied to an NBA veteran his senior, Vince Carter.
When asked about his former AAU teammate on Jan. 26 in Atlanta, Carter detailed how the two reconnected at the Nets-Hawks game on Dec. 21. Carter said Bryant told him he’s never been “happier” than he was in retirement and Carter was going to be fine. He told Carter the two would eventually talk more in depth at a later time.
This is painful!!!— Vince Carter (@mrvincecarter15) January 27, 2020
I’ve known this man since he was 15 & I was 16. AAU teammates to competing against him for 18 seasons in the NBA. We were literally talking in these pics how I will enjoy retirement and that we would have a convo soon on how to go through it. Also how happy... pic.twitter.com/5P1Egv0EMh
Bryant matured into a professional in every sense of the word in the final years of his life. The words he spoke on Dec. 4, 2015 about being a teacher and mentor to the youth held true all the way up to his final seconds on earth.