Jenni Carlson: Kobe Bryant's class, care evident in penultimate trip to OKC
Kobe Bryant played his last road game in Oklahoma City.
Lots of folks around these parts remember that.
But the game that comes to mind on the day Kobe was killed in a helicopter crash was the one he didn’t play in Oklahoma City earlier that season. Memories of one of the greatest players in all of basketball were plentiful Sunday as the reality of his death in a fiery, tragic accident began setting in. The great performances. The transformational talents. Yet, the December day he didn't play in OKC stands out to me.
Before the 2015-16 season, Bryant announced his 20th season in the NBA would be his last. Every road game became part of the Kobe Appreciation Tour, and lucky Oklahoma City, we got the Lakers twice that season. That meant two times to see Kobe. Two times to see the Black Mamba one last time.
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Mid-December was our first chance, and people were fired up. It was a Saturday afternoon, perfect for lots of fans. School kids didn’t have to stay up late. Working folks didn’t have worry about getting up early the next day.
Tickets in the upper deck were going for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market.
People wanted to see Kobe.
Then about 90 minutes before tipoff, word spread that Bryant wasn’t going to play. Sore right shoulder was the listed reason, though some suspected Kobe didn’t want any part of guarding Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant.
Whatever the case, fans were disappointed. Crushed, even.
I talked to a couple brothers who’d driven to Oklahoma City from Omaha to see Kobe. When the youngest of the two heard that Bryant wasn’t playing, he sat down and cried.
There were all sorts of stories of disappointed fans.
After the game, I asked Kobe about those folks. First of all, the fact Bryant talked to the media was no small thing. Since he didn’t play, he didn’t have to talk. But he agreed to being interviewed by the masses.
Totally classy move.
And then when I asked him about fans who’d wanted to see him, I reminded him about his previous comments that he tried to play every game like there was someone in the stands who might have never seen an NBA game before. Or someone who might never see another one. Or someone who might’ve scraped together their hard-earned dollars just to get there.
I asked him if he thought about fans like that on days like that?
“All the time,” he said as he nodded his head. “All the time.”
He paused a moment.
“If I'm not out there playing, you know (my shoulder’s) pretty sore, so I've got to rest it. Helped me out a little bit because I know I'm coming back (to Oklahoma City), but I still want to make sure that I'm ready to play for the rest of the games this season and make sure I'm healthy and make sure I can move a little bit.”
Again, totally classy.
He didn’t have to give a thoughtful answer, but he did. He didn’t have to see things through the eyes of those fans who had wanted so badly to see him, but he did. Not every NBA player would’ve reacted that way, and certainly not all of the ones who reach the super stardom that Kobe had.
Listen, I’m not here to suggest Kobe Bryant was perfect. Even on the day he died tragically, I think we can all agree he was flawed just as all of us are flawed.
But Kobe Bryant was a pro. He cared about the game, about his craft, about his legacy. And yes, he cared about the fans, even the disappointed ones in Oklahoma City one December day back in 2015.