SACRAMENTO -- Good riddance. That is the real message that many Sacramento Kings fans would like to send to Kobe Bryant on Thursday night when he makes his final trip to Sleep Train Arena.
Since 1996, be it wearing No. 24 or No. 8, Bryant has gone to every length to break the hearts of the good people of Sacramento. When he walks away from the game at season’s end, plenty of Kings fans will giggle inside with delight.
There is no question that Kobe Bryant is an NBA great. He is easily one of the Top 20 players of all time. You have to respect his game, but that doesn’t mean that you have to like him.
Maybe it’s the way that he played the game. Always the tactician, Bryant destroyed the opposition in a way that almost felt robotic. Cold and unforgiving, he had a knack for knowing just how to rip the heart out of his foe and the thousands viewing from afar.
Bryant could have been the next Michael Jordan, but he never had the outward personality to pull it off. It was always about business. He is a basketball player, not an entertainer.
He wasn’t a friend to the fans and certainly not the media. And as his career weaved in and out of championship runs, he wasn’t even a friend to many of his teammates. Bryant played the game on his own terms and he did so at an incredible level.
There are plenty of NBA teams with their own history with Bryant, but the Kings run-ins seemed more frequent. For a handful of years, the Kings-Lakers rivalry was the one of the best in pro sports.
Plenty of fans will point to Game 6 of 2002 Western Conference Finals as their least favorite Kobe moment. With less than 12 seconds remaining and the Kings trailing 103-100, Hedo Turkoglu hit a layup to cut the Lakers lead to one. On the ensuing inbounds, Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the face trying to get open and no foul was given. Doug Christie was forced to foul Bryant and he iced the game with a pair of free throws.
The Lakers held on in that game and then beat the Kings in seven games to advance to the finals. It is the year that an NBA championship slipped through the fingers of the Sacramento Kings and Kobe Bryant’s stamp was all over the series.
But there are plenty of other examples of Bryant burning the Kings. Countless big games and too many big shots to count, though the one that really sticks out came at a crucial moment in the team’s history.
April 13, 2011 was supposed to be the last game ever played in Sacramento. The Maloof brothers had worked out a deal with southern California business man Henry Samueli to move the team to Anaheim. All that was needed was NBA Board of Governors approval.
After months of back and forth, the prevailing thought around the league was that Sacramento was losing its one and only professional franchise. Game 82 of the regular season wasn’t just any other night.
Going to the fourth quarter, the Lakers led 88-70. This was a 57-win team beating down a 24-win club with no future. But the Kings weren’t done. And neither were their fans. Twelve minutes of basketball remaining in Sacramento before the death of the Kings and the birth of the Anaheim Royals.
Riding the emotion of the night, a rag-tag group of players that couldn’t get out of their own way for most of the season fought back. The scene was out of a Hollywood film. With nothing to play for but pride and an incredible fan base on its last legs, the Kings hit shot after shot.
After trailing for more than forty minutes straight, the Kings took the lead with 1:22 remaining on a Jason Thompson flip. Fans were literally crying in the stands. Tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears for one last win at Arco Arena.
With 4.8 seconds remaining, Bryant drilled a 25-footer from the top of the key to tie the game and silenced the jubilation.
For some fans, Bryant gave them five more minutes of Kings basketball. For others, he showed them one more time that he was the main attraction.
The Kings would go on to lose a meaningless game on paper. The Lakers had already clinched the second seed in the Western Conference. The Kings were headed for another spin in the lottery and so much uncertainty.
Even when it didn’t matter, Kobe Bryant stuck it to Kings fans one more time.
Bryant’s announcement that he was retiring came as no surprise. When healthy, he’s been a below average player for the last three seasons. His numbers show that he is a shell of his former greatness.
Kings fans will likely give the future Hall of Famer a standing ovation at some point during the game. They extended that courtesy to John Stockton when he played his last regular season game in Sacramento as a member of the Utah Jazz and Bryant should be no different.
But don’t be shocked if the tide goes a different direction sometime during the game. Sacramento has a knowledgeable fan base. They appreciate greatness, but they also know that this is the guy that never showed them mercy -- even in their darkest hour.