LOS ANGELES — On a night filled with hyperbolic, effusive praise, perhaps the most noteworthy bit of cheerleading came from President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, who earnestly pleaded with Kobe Bryant to bring together the disparate tribes of the United States of America.
"This country needs to come together, and you were able to bring us all together," Johnson said in addressing Bryant at a halftime ceremony Monday night to retire two of his jerseys, Nos. 8 and 24, to the rafters of the Staples Center.
For as taken with the moment as the arena was, identifying Bryant as the figure who could pave over the cracks in our society is an interesting choice considering the totality of his playing career.
There's no mistaking Bryant's impact on the city of Los Angeles and the Lakers franchise. His five championships, a 2008 MVP award and a truckload of offensive records endeared him to millions of people and earned him the rare distinction of having the two jersey numbers he wore retired by the same team.
"People feel connected to him," Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters before Monday night's 116-114 overtime defeat to the Golden State Warriors. "He's everything to this city."
The Lakers even erected a temporary carnival called Kobeland—complete with a functioning ferris wheel—to celebrate the moment. In truth, all of Los Angeles could be considered Kobeland, a place where an 8 or 24 jersey could be considered formal attire.
Outside of L.A., though, it's hard to overstate how unpopular he was for many years—the sullen, single-minded assassin eager to bury your favorite team and every other team in the league. He was unapproachable, unknowable and surly by default. Is there an athlete more beloved by a town and more loathed outside of it? Tom Brady, perhaps?
With the same amount of diligence he showed on the basketball court, Bryant has made every effort to reach out to the greater world since he announced his retirement in 2015.
He's a product pitchman, a business owner and the subject of a short film that might end up nominated for an Academy Award. He's not quite a man of the people (that glittering wedding ring he wears on his left hand costs more than the average yearly salary), but at least he's trying.
And in a way, Monday night was another step in that process.
It was about unification—the melding of Bryant's dueling legacies. The hero and the villain. The cocky kid and the aging gunslinger. Two sides of the same remarkable athlete. The only things separating them are the hair (or lack thereof) and the passing of time.
Bryant was keenly aware of what this night meant, both to him and to the Lakers. It's another marker on the road away from the glory days of championship seasons that now seem to be in the distant past.
"Eventually, you have to move on and focus with your head down on what comes next; then come up for air."
What's next for the Lakers is a question that continues to be asked, both by pundits and by the franchise itself. The verdict on its young stars remains out. Glimmers of hope are dimmed by egregious stumbles.
A winnable game against a hobbled Warriors team slipped through the Lakers' fingers, thanks in part to an abysmal 62.9 percent free-throw shooting effort. The Lakers pressed the issue down to the final seconds, thanks to seven critical points from Lonzo Ball—the presumed next big thing for Showtime. After four quarters of timid play on the offensive end, Ball looked eager to claim the spot greats like Bryant left behind.
By the end, one couldn't help but wonder what this Lakers team could do with a player like Bryant—one who could wrest control of a close game at any moment, tilt the balance to his side with a cruel fallaway or a dagger three.
The Warriors have that in Kevin Durant. Twelve of his 36 points came in the crucial extra quarter, including the decisive pull-up jumper. It's a tired cliche to say that situations such as this—razor-thin margins—are what build champions, but sometimes cliches exist for a reason.
With numerous chances to snatch the lead in the fourth, the Lakers kept bricking, rimming out or turning the ball over. Until Brandon Ingram, Ball, Kyle Kuzma or some combination of the three can find something close to the "Mamba Mentality" inside of them (or a free-agent superstar acquisition falls out of a palm tree on Sunset Boulevard), the Lakers will find themselves repeating this outcome over and over again.
As it has been since he retired, Bryant wasn't there to save the Lakers. He already was on his way out of the arena when overtime started. "I gotta roll. I gotta get the baby home," he said to onlookers as he confidently sauntered through the tunnel he'd spent much of his adult life in.
You could take him at his word (you gotta beat traffic in this town), or the more cynical among us could see it as a subtle rebuke of a team that doesn't measure up to his lofty standards, a team he had a hand in creating.
Warriors on NBCS @NBCSWarriors
“I gotta roll, I gotta take the baby home” @kobebryant after leaving at the start of OT https://t.co/8WS2vD9nOO2017-12-19 06:31:44
Bryant's massive final contract (two years, $48 million) forced Lakers management to surround him with journeymen and inexperienced role players. It also slowed their rebuilding process and required they dig themselves out of an even deeper hole than they found themselves in after the great Dwight Howard/Steve Nash experiment exploded in their face.
That's the Laker way, though. Honor your legends and spare no expense to do so. The ostentatious Kobeland and its ferris wheel embody all of that. Laker Nation stands still for its past, even while it prays for the future.
"I never seen nothing like it," Ball told reporters after the game. "There's never gonna be another Kobe." Unfortunately for him, L.A. sports fans demand that very thing.
Never before has a Lakers rookie been asked to fill such iconic shoes. Magic Johnson had three years between Jerry West's retirement and his arrival. In that time, the Lakers were a perennial playoff team employing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bryant was a raw 18-year-old who had the benefit of a ready-made partnership with Shaquille O'Neal.
There's no superstar to carry the load for Ball, and there's significantly more attention coming his way. Staples Center roars when he knifes a pass between defenders or slashes to the lane. It groans when he air-balls an open three.
What Ball does share with Bryant is an inherent knack for polarization; though in this case, it's through no fault of his own. His father, LaVar, throws the bombs and takes the flack in the media while Lonzo tries to make a name for himself in the NBA.
Around the league, opposing fanbases sharpen their knives when the Lakers come to town. Other teams target him for on-court mind games and rookie hazing. Much like Kobe, one would find it challenging to unearth many Lonzo Ball fans outside of Southern California.
And indeed, if Bryant can teach Ball one thing, it's that the boos are temporary. They fade away with a smile and an occasional candid, humanizing photo op.
Bryant found that the barrier between himself and the fans was easily shattered through humility. It's a truth Lonzo may already understand. The more Ball contrasts his dad's bluster with his own "aw-shucks, I'm just happy to be here" interviews, the less people will hate him. And maybe, as that happens, he can discover more of the confident shooter he showed in overtime last night.
Confidence was not something Bryant lacked. Ever. But over time he has discovered how to connect in more relatable ways.
In his extemporaneous halftime speech, Bryant referred to himself as a "skinny old kid" when he first came to the league. He made fun of his hair loss. He's just like us, he was trying to say, except, in reality, not at all. There will never be another Kobe, whether you like it or not.
Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.