INDIANAPOLIS — Kobe Bryant strode into the Vienna Ballroom on the second floor of the Conrad Hotel on Sunday evening. He slid into a table seat next to head coach Byron Scott, passing up the sofas closer to the projection TV screen where Lakers players were sitting.
Inconsequential as such a choice at a casual Super Bowl viewing gathering might be, it's a reflection of how Bryant walks in a strange basketball netherworld in this final season.
He is a player—a player more celebrated right now every time he is on the court than any in recent NBA history. He also has no future as a player—no playoff prospects now, no desire to continue later.
He is closer in age to the coaches—and takes very seriously how important it is for him to be a coach to the Lakers' young prospects.
But in other ways, Bryant is neither player nor coach—almost never showing up to mandatory-for-everyone-else Lakers practices or shootarounds as he works with Scott's blessing behind the scenes to prepare his body to perform for the sold-out crowds. Even on the road that's the case—and will be again in Cleveland on Tuesday, when he does his own thing while others gather for practice.
It's all a mishmash. The Lakers' 11-43 record is a disgrace, and Bryant's ball dominance and coronation proceedings run counter to basic player development for guys such as D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
It's all undeniably true...and yet it's all quite sweet.
That's what people on the outside are missing as Bryant's farewell tour plays out.
Bryant's smile is real. He is savoring and appreciating his final lap, even if it leads nowhere. And what few realize is that having these at times juvenile teammates has positively affected Bryant's last season.
No one has thought about what they are giving him.
He could not be this "carefree"—his word—if it really mattered whether the Lakers won games. There is lightness to his being in part because he feels the natural joy that youngsters bring to the game, and that is the most important element for Bryant to bring to work in his last season.
When Bryant hit a game-clinching three-pointer Thursday in New Orleans, you never saw the fierce Black Mamba look so outwardly blissful about making a clutch shot.
Not fired up, not proud...just joyful.
He couldn't stop smiling and laughing, pin-balling from teammate to teammate on the Lakers bench. These guys who have the most right to be annoyed he's jacking up so many of their shots and making only 35 percent of them are sort of an extension of these pro-Kobe crowds, yearning for him to remind them of their youths when things made sense and Kobe made shots.
There's far more to it than that, though.
The real reason Bryant was so amused by that dagger shot was he needed it to bounce back after just getting dunked on by New Orleans' Ryan Anderson.
To Bryant, it wasn't just a humbling old-man moment. It was the basketball gods poking him for what he'd recently boasted to Randle and other teammates: that he had been posterized only once—by defensive specialist Adonal Foyle "a long, long time ago," and never since.
Lo and behold, here was comeuppance for his braggadocio. (And it's also worth noting that Anderson's dunk happened shortly after Russell had the backbone to chastise Bryant for not stepping into the lane with proper help defense on a previous play.)
Still, the irony Bryant found isn't even the best part of the story.
The conversation about being dunked on arose after Bryant had mocked Randle for being dunked on by the Clippers' Lance Stephenson the week before. So in light of Anderson's dunk on Bryant, Randle suggested Bryant do as Randle did: Randle changed his identity by dying his hair lighter.
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Bryant predictably scoffed at that, which is when Randle dropped the hammer punch line:
"Oh, that's right," Randle ribbed Bryant. "You can't grow hair anymore."
No, his teammates don't see Bryant every day, but they do know him and love him in a very real way.
Clarkson echoed a similar sentiment as he dressed slowly late that night in New Orleans, unmoved by the fact that there was almost no one left in there.
Clarkson said he knew he didn't have to hurry because "the old man"—gesturing to the training room where Bryant was still holed up—would definitely take longer to recover from the game.
Russell, meanwhile, had been super proud that night how Bryant "told everybody to move" a couple times in the game so Russell could put the newfound post moves he's so excited about to good use.
"He trusts me," Russell said. "That's the best thing about it."
No one keeps it as loose as the 19-year-old Russell, who heard the arena music during his pregame shooting workout Monday and broke into impromptu dance moves behind the three-point arc. (The artist? B.o.B., the rapper who alleges the world is flat.)
After a December game in Minnesota, Russell had gleefully leapt up to land on Bryant's shoulder from behind during Bryant's postgame on-court TV interview. You might recall Bryant was none too pleased last year with how Jordan Hill and Nick Young got carried away with that sort of situation, but this time Bryant just smiled and rolled with the fun.
Before that New Orleans game Thursday, Russell stood next to a seated Bryant, waiting for him to be introduced with the starting lineup and the crowd to roar.
Bryant slapped Russell's hand and moved on to join the rest of the team on the court. Russell just stood there after his hand got slapped—and wore an exaggerated, sarcastic grin as he held his aloft, right palm spread open, as if he couldn't believe his hand had been touched by the great one.
Russell carried that prized hand aloft all the way out to the huddle to share the fun.
Fun has been a constant for Bryant this season—in part because the kids make it impossible for him to linger too long on his dark side.
Bryant balked at any suggestion that he has gone soft: "The great white swims with a smile; the killer instinct never goes away," he told Bleacher Report.
Still, he acknowledged the reality of the season.
"It's just us not being as competitive as we used to be has changed my role substantially," Bryant said, "to be more of a teacher, more of a coach, to a person who understands more and has more patience in dealing with the young guys. It's much, much different in that aspect."
It's a welcome part of the outgoing Bryant's identity.
He has become fully humanized this season.
It's what Bryant wanted to come across in his 2015 documentary, and it's what he'll have with whatever comes out of another camera crew that is getting unprecedented access to him and all his games, with the NBA's permission, even though the league's network partners pay billions for this sort of access. (The official company that the crew works for? "20th Season LLC.")
The pregame video tributes and nice moments of Bryant tapping his heart and pointing toward the fans will be heartwarming, albeit predictable, fodder. Gregg Popovich's message during the Spurs' wholehearted video Friday was wonderful: "Your competitiveness is inspiring."
The subtler moments when Bryant stops during pregame shooting to smile and wave and get the attention of his family are gold, so basic that it's almost like he is a child again, stopping to wave to his parents before one of his first games at the neighborhood gym.
When I asked Kevin Durant earlier this season if he was surprised by how much Bryant was smiling on the court, Durant's eyes widened at the reminder of how shocking it was to him. Similar gladness mesmerized Paul George on Monday night.
Like Durant, George got a gift pair of Kobe's game sneakers afterward. George said proudly about his idol: "We shared a lot of laughs and had a lot of moments."
Even big, bad ex-Celtics rival Kendrick Perkins was waiting outside the locker room in New Orleans to give goodbye hugs to Bryant. Next-gen basketball star Ben Simmons was in the stands that same night, cheering for Kobe.
In every single case, there's been a beauty in Bryant's ability to connect with people around him and share meaningful feelings surrounding his career's end.
He penned his retirement letter to basketball, but this season has been about saying goodbye to all the people in his basketball life. Bryant even wrote an unsolicited thank you note to the longtime visiting locker room security guard in Portland last month.
Bruce Ely @bruceely
An unsolicited note to Glenn (long time visitor locker room security) from @kobebryant after last game @ModaCenter https://t.co/KxGetStNJf1/29/2016, 7:53:42 PM
So on Sunday night Bryant stayed in the Vienna Ballroom longer than any other Lakers player—all the way to the end of the game—and in many ways he was the life of the Super Bowl party for teammates, coaches and staffers.
The source of energy this season for so many people, fans especially, must be him. The coming All-Star weekend in Toronto promises much, much more of the same.
It will obviously be a respite from his life as a loser on this Lakers team.
Life, one apart from the few victories and many defeats, is really the only way Bryant's journey can end so enjoyably.
It's the only way everybody—including Bryant—wins.
This guy who has always been a mix of sweet and sour has no good reason to jut that jaw. No longer need he remind certain opposing players: "I'm a nice guy. Don't tell anybody or you'll ruin my image."
The great white's gut instinct remains, yet the water feels different. This season is not life or death.
And all around him there are young, cheerful teammates to reassure him:
It's OK to have fun with this.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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