Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kobe Bryant’s Long Goodbye

Last week, about an hour before the Los Angeles Lakerswere to face the Timberwolves here at Target Center, Gary Vitti leaned against a wall outside the visitors’ locker room and exhaled. Vitti has been the Lakers’ athletic trainer for 32 seasons, but he has other responsibilities, too. He fields ticket requests. He helps manage the schedule.
“It’s like herding cats, man,” he said. “They’re all over the place.”
Vitti knew his biggest challenge of the night was still ahead: marshaling the players out of the arena and to the airport in a timely fashion. It had everything to do with Kobe Bryant, who was about to make his final appearance in Minneapolis on his farewell tour of N.B.A. arenas.
“The most disruptive thing is trying to get out of here after the game,” Vitti said. “He has to do his postgame therapy, and then he does his media, and then everybody wants a piece of him because they’re not going to see him again. I’m just trying to get these guys to the next city.”

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Vitti, 61, has seen a lot in his time with the team, and there are elements of Kobe-palooza — coming soon to a city near you — that feel vaguely familiar. In the 1988-89 season, Vitti witnessed the pageantry of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s season-long retirement from the Lakers. A 19-time N.B.A. All-Star and the league’s career scoring leader, Abdul-Jabbar helped the Lakers win five championships. Everywhere he went in his final season, opposing crowds and teams treated him with reverence.
“We all got a lot of rings out of Kareem,” Vitti said. “He deserved it, and I think everyone was proud to be a part of it.”
Today, the league has settled in for the slow buildup to the end of another era, as Bryant, 37, who announced on Nov. 29 that this season would be his last, travels from city to city. Abdul-Jabbar, 68, said he could see the parallels between his path and Bryant’s.
“Kobe should allow the fans to show him some appreciation as he goes out,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “because most of the time they were rooting against him, and it’s nice to feel that change.”
Farewell tours are the province of deified sports figures. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were feted at baseball stadiums ahead of their retirements from the Yankees. Julius Erving drew massive crowds as he played his final games with the Philadelphia 76ers.
But while Abdul-Jabbar was among the first athletes (and perhaps the first) to have such a grand, elongated send-off, it helped that he announced his impending retirement well ahead of his final season. Bryant waited until the season was underway, when it was finally clear to him that he was powerless to ward off the effects of age and injury.
“He kept everyone guessing for a while,” said Mychal Thompson, an analyst for the Lakers’ radio broadcasts.
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar received a piece of the Boston Garden floor from Red Auerbach in 1988 during his final season. CreditDavid M. Tenenbaum/Associated Press
Thompson, who played alongside Abdul-Jabbar, recalled the unceremonious ending to his own N.B.A. career. The Lakers bought out his contract, and he spent a final season in Italy.
“I tried to do the same thing that Kareem did,” Thompson said, deadpan, “but I didn’t even get a pigpen.”
Bryant has chosen to forgo pregame ceremonies on the road, saying he does not want to be a distraction. No gifts, at least not in public. But the video tributes, the standing ovations, the fans who wait outside arenas after games hoping to catch a glimpse of the man — the atmosphere is still one that borders on hysteria.
“The way he showed up to play hard every night, people appreciate that,” Thompson said.
If the dynamics were similar for Abdul-Jabbar, there were key differences: Crowds were more respectful than hysterical, and his team was good. The embers of the Showtime-era Lakers were cooling, but the team was still bound for the N.B.A. finals that season.
Byron Scott, one of Abdul-Jabbar’s longtime teammates, is now the Lakers’ coach. He has been in charge of a grease fire. The Lakers were 4-21 ahead of their home game Thursday against the Houston Rockets. Scott has decided to cede the spotlight to Bryant, for better or for worse.
“We have so many young guys on this team, and I don’t know how they’re handling it,” Scott said last week. “But for myself and our coaching staff, you’ve been through this and you expect this, and it’s kind of the routine right now because this is how it’s going to be for 82 games.”
PFor Abdul-Jabbar, the logistics were fairly straightforward. Whenever he made his final appearance at an opposing arena, players from both teams would begin to warm up, and then everything would pause for a five-minute ceremony as officials gathered to honor him at midcourt. His teammates and the team’s staff would take it all inVitti recalled how he always stood next to Magic Johnson. It became a part of their ritual, Vitti and Johnson watching as Abdul-Jabbar collected gift after gift: a Winchester rifle from the Utah Jazz, a wet suit from the Los Angeles Clippers, VCRs from the Nets and the Chicago Bulls (yes, two VCRs). Johnson would lean toward Vitti and smile.
“Can you imagine what they’re going to do for me when I retire?” Vitti recalled Johnson saying more than once.
Johnson never got the chance. In November 1991, he revealed that he was H.I.V. positive, hastening his retirement. He made a brief comeback in 1996, but it lacked pizazz.
“He was robbed of that,” Vitti said.
The ceremonies for Abdul-Jabbar had a cumulative effect on the team, Vitti said. Today, player introductions feel like Hollywood movie trailers. The lights dim, flames fly from scoreboards and music blasts from enormous speakers. Nothing seems to faze players anymore. But back then, the atmosphere was muted.
“You did the anthem, they announced the players and then you played,” Vitti said. “They didn’t turn the lights out. There was no fire. They didn’t do any of this stuff.”
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So whenever an opponent honored Abdul-Jabbar, it was a break from routine. He was 42 when he retired, and he acknowledged that the process became emotionally taxing.
“But it was a real honor to be singled out like that,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abdul-Jabbar, who responded via email to questions submitted through his publicist, recognized that the quality of his play was declining. In his final season, he averaged 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Hindered by injuries in the finals, the Lakers fell to the Detroit Pistons in a four-game sweep.
“I knew my stats were going down, and I had other things that I was struggling with,” he said. “So I was pretty happy that it was my last season because I didn’t want people remembering me not playing up to the standards I had set my whole career.”
Before their final home game of the regular season, the Lakers celebrated Abdul-Jabbar at the Forum, which was packed with celebrities: Quincy Jones, Gilda Radner, Jack Nicholson, and Cheech and Chong, among others. Abdul-Jabbar’s son Amir sang the national anthem. Chick Hearn, the team’s play-by-play broadcaster, served as master of ceremonies.
And there were, of course, more gifts, including a lighted tennis court for his home in Hawaii, courtesy of the team’s owner, Jerry Buss. Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates and coaches bought him a Rolls-Royce. Sadly, Thompson said, Abdul-Jabbar had trouble folding his 7-foot-2 frame inside the vehicle, and that was not the first incident of its kind. Earlier that season, the Golden State Warriors presented him with a sailboat.
“But it was too small for me,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “so I gave it away.”
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“Kobe should allow the fans to show him some appreciation as he goes out,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “because most of the time they were rooting against him, and it’s nice to feel that change.” CreditNick Wass/Associated Press
Some gifts meant more to Abdul-Jabbar than others. He treasured an elephant sculpture that the Dallas Mavericks gave him, largely because his mother loved elephants. He also got great use out of a hand-carved rocking chair that was presented to him by the Charlotte Hornets. Whenever his mother visited, she would sit in the chair and wrap herself in a comforter she had crocheted.
Abdul-Jabbar still has the chair, he said, and he keeps the comforter at the edge of his bed.It has not been the most graceful exit for Bryant, who spent weeks trying to shoot his way to his vintage self — shot after shot, most of them misses. His surgically repaired legs betrayed him as critics piled on, arguing that he should be more willing to accept a complementary role at this stage of his career.
Even Bryant acknowledged that his lower body felt sort of numb when the Lakers, at the start of the team’s recent eight-game trip, lost to the 76ers on Dec. 1. Coming on the heels of his retirement announcement, the game was a homecoming for Bryant, who grew up outside Philadelphia. He was 7 of 26 from the field in 32 tortured minutes.
Stu Lantz, the longtime analyst for the team’s television broadcasts, mentioned how gracious Bryant had been with fans and members of the news media “in the midst of trying to end his career somewhat respectably.” It might be Bryant’s greatest challenge to date. Lantz said he was under the impression that Bryant hoped to appear in every road game the rest of the way, mostly out of a sense of obligation to everyone who had paid to see him play.
“I’m worried about the physicality of his playing every night,” Lantz said. “But he’s built that way. He never liked missing games anyhow.”
In hopes of getting Bryant to the finish line with his limbs intact, Scott said he would try to do a better job of monitoring Bryant’s minutes. In Minneapolis last week, Bryant played just 25 minutes, scoring 11 points and spending most of the second half on the bench.“He just seems at peace,” Scott said. “I think he knows he’s done everything he can possibly do as a basketball player.”
It was Bryant’s supreme confidence that had helped make him so great for so long, the unassailable belief that he could make every shot, no matter the circumstances. But more recently, his attitude has seemed to shift, his approach growing more mature.
In Minneapolis, Bryant said he felt comfortable “coaching” and “teaching” from the bench. After D’Angelo Russell misfired on what would have been a go-ahead jumper, the Lakers lost in overtime. Russell expressed his disappointment to Bryant.
“Listen, man,” Bryant recalled telling Russell. “I made plenty of them, and I missed plenty of them, too. It’s your first shot, but it won’t be your last, so on you go.”
Bryant turned wistful, especially when he was asked about the Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett, another elder statesman. Like Bryant, Garnett had cleared the stage late in the game, stationing himself on the bench.
“It seems like yesterday we were the young, young ones,” Bryant said. “It’s just crazy to me, lining up with K. G. after all these years. It’s nuts. Where did the time go?”
Over his last five games, Bryant has averaged 18.2 points while shooting 47.2 percent from the field. He is still clearly capable of having his moments. At Staples Center on Tuesday night, he collected 22 points and 6 assists in a convincing win over the Milwaukee Bucks. It was reminiscent of a time gone by.
“Letting go of his obsession of the game is going to be hard,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “because it served him so well his entire life. But at this point, he should take it from me that it’s time to find something else. Somebody as intelligent and worldly as Kobe should not have a hard time finding that space.”
On Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell tour, Vitti, the team trainer, was a younger man — younger, in fact, than many of the players. Now, they regard him as a sage voice. At least one of the team’s first-year players calls him Dad. Vitti has two years left on his contract, but this is his final season as a trainer, he said. He feels ready to do something else. The road is a grind.

“This is it, brother,” Vitti said. “I just keep telling myself: ‘Listen, man. You can do anything one more time.’ So whenever I start getting annoyed at stuff, I just decompress.”
Vitti has delegated many of his duties to members of his staff. He supervises and manages. Like Bryant and Abdul-Jabbar before him, Vitti knows enough to look ahead.
“It’s time,” he said.

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