Kobe Bryant's final game has arrived. After a Hall-of-Fame career that spanned 20 years, the "Black Mamba" will lace up his shoes one final time tonight as the Los Angeles Lakers host the Utah Jazz at Staples Center.
Kobe Bryant has had one of the most successful NBA careers in history. He sits in third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list with more than 33,000 points. He has won five championships and is known as one of the fiercest competitors the league has ever seen. There's a reason he has the nickname that he does. Kobe Bryant wanted to win....always. Just like his idol Michael Jordan, Bryant had no problem getting in the face of his own teammates and coaches if it served the greater good. And he certainly didn't have a problem getting in the heads of his opponents. Just ask them.
Throughout Kobe's farewell season, he's been getting some well-deserved special attention, especially on the road. From special introductions to elaborate video packages, Bryant has finally allowed himself to relax and just take it all in. With the Lakers being nowhere near the playoffs, Bryant has actually been a little out of character. There's been more smiles and more laughter than in the past, but that doesn't mean that those that have played against him have forgotten what he was like in his prime. And the youngsters in the league who grew up watching Kobe Bryant have just been in awe of him. Future Hall of Famers, coaches, and rookies alike have been praising Kobe Bryant all season long. Here are some of the highlights.
Paul George (November 29)
"Kobe was my (Michael) Jordan. I didn't really have any moments of watching Jordan, but Kobe was my Jordan. Watching him win championships — I remember just being at home watching the games with my mom, my grandma, my dad, (and) just idolizing him. After the game was over, I'd go in the front yard and try to imitate everything that I just saw. So he was, in my eyes – not saying he's better than Jordan – but, for me, growing up, that's who I idolized and look up to. That was the standard. He was the best player and it wasn't close."
LeBron James (December 1)
"I knew I had to be better because of Kobe Bryant. I knew he was in the gym and I knew he was working on his game. And I knew he was great. So every day that I didn't want to work out or every day I felt like I couldn't give more, I always thought of Kobe. Because I knew that he was getting better."
DeMar DeRozan (December 7)
"It was an honor. It's a sad day. It's a little bit of everything just to see him walking away from the game, especially someone I idolized and grew up watching. I'm honored to have the opportunity to just compete against him. When I'm old, I can add in stories that I played against Kobe, like a lot of older guys do about Michael Jordan."
Kevin Durant (December 23)
"Great players elevate your game, elevate the team, and he's one of those guys."
Blake Griffin (December 25)
"Kobe's a guy that's done so much for this league and has such a big imprint on the game of basketball for the past 20 years."
Klay Thompson (January 5)
"I'm going to miss competing against him because he's one of the best competitors, not just in basketball, but in sports."
Stephen Curry (January 12)
"The game's in such...a better place because Kobe played in the league for 20 years. We appreciate all he's done and we want to keep doing the game justice as we do what we do in our careers."
Gordon Hayward (January 16)
"He is one of the greatest players of all-time. It was something for me, I used to watch him growing up… watched the best players, and he was always playing with the Lakers teams."
Dirk Nowitzki (January 26)
"Like I said this entire time, he's our Michael Jordan for my generation. He is one of the best to lace them up, and it's been a pleasure and an honor to compete against him basically almost my entire career. I wish him nothing but the best for life after basketball."
Jimmy Butler (January 28)
"That was a guy that I wanted to be like when I was growing up. I wanted to be in the position that he was for the game. Before the game, he just told me to keep going, keep playing at the level I'm playing at. It made me smile. I was like, 'You know what, you got Kobe's respect in this league then you must be doing something right.'"
Pau Gasol (January 28)
"We had some rougher times, because of all the changes and the decisions that were made. But, we always stuck together, and our relationship is stronger. I'm extremely happy that I was able to share those moments with him and go through all of those things."
Karl-Anthony Towns (February 2)
"You're talking about 81 points, and that's just one game. You can talk about all the great games he's had, championships, MVPs — and that may be something that we'll never see again."
Andrew Wiggins (February 2)
"He's the greatest of my generation. He perfected the game of basketball."
Ricky Rubio (February 2)
"When I get old, I can tell my kids I played against Kobe, so that's something that I'm going to remember. He's one of the best to play this game ever and you've got to admire that kind of talent and passion for the game."
Isaiah Thomas (February 13)
"He's the greatest player of my time. Somebody that's changed the game in so many ways. The game of basketball's gonna miss him. Like I always say, I just thank him for everything he's done. He's impacted so many people's lives that he doesn't even know."
Dwyane Wade (February 13)
"Having a relationship with one of my heroes, one of my role models as a basketball player, meant a lot. To be able to pick up the phone (and) reach out to him means a lot. It means more than the words that even he can say."
Anthony Davis (February 13)
"That was really the first time I got to see him play live. The way he played — he didn't care about scoring; he just wanted to win. That's a winning mentality and championship mentality."
Kawhi Leonard (February 13)
"It's not just scoring if you're trying to win games. He takes pride in his defense. … Just every game watching him be the guard that's the best defender in crunch time."
John Wall (February 13)
"Everybody wanted to be like A.I., Kobe, Mike — one of those guys. He's the Michael Jordan of our era, in my opinion. All the young players that lived in L.A. watched him and enjoyed him."
Carmelo Anthony (February 13)
"Mentally, physically — you had to be sharp and prepared going against him. Every day it wasn't going to be the same thing. It was a mind game. It was a mental game that you had to prepare yourself for."
James Harden (February 13)
"Not just the culture of L.A., but the culture around the world. Twenty years in, five championship, (an) MVP — he's done it all. We've seen that for 20 years. It's gonna be hard to kind of see him go, but it had to be at some point."
Derrick Rose (February 21)
"He is a legend. He deserves everything. He's meant so much to the league."
Vince Carter (February 26)
"We've had 18 years' worth of battles, and that's a lot of time, so it's kind of hard to pick one (memory) out of that. I knew each time we stepped on the floor it was going to be fireworks – good or bad. Sometimes we ended up face to face, getting in each other's face. Other times it's just straight up going at each other. It just made for great basketball, and always you look forward to playing against him because you know he's not going to back down."
Draymond Green (March 6)
"Obviously he has done so much for this game. I grew up a huge fan of Kobe's so playing him for the last time, I am thankful that I got to play him. That's history and I am proud to be a part of it, a small part of it."
LeBron James (March 10)
"I wish I could play against him every single night. Just that competitive juice, just that feel going against one of the greatest, you can never take that for granted. I'm not glad. It's really surreal actually. You're not going to get a real sense for it until you play them next year and he's not in the lineup."
Kyrie Irving (March 10)
"Just being a 20-year-old kid at USA camp. Challenging him to that one-on-one game which is historic for me. I probably didn't realize what I was getting myself into at the time. But that attitude, I know he respected it. … It was a great experience and that's one of those moments I'll remember for a lifetime."
Carmelo Anthony (March 13)
"He's an assassin. You can't take any plays off going up against him. He's an animal. You see flashes of him out there, he still has that look in his eyes when he gets the ball. You have to pay close attention to him, so we're definitely going to miss that."
Tony Allen (March 22)
"I love everything he brought to this game. I respect him. He is a man of his word. He gave me his shoes. He's going out in style. I can tell you that. Salute to the Mamba."
Devin Booker (March 23)
"I missed the shot but I used one of his moves against him and that's the first thing he said against me. 'You're trying to use my own move against me?' He said that right at the end of the game, so it was fun. That was the only time we matched up, but like I said, it's something I will remember for the rest of my life."
John Wall (March 27)
"It's an amazing honor to play against him and I got the opportunity to talk to him for a bit after the game. It's something you cherish, it's something you remember, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to play, and I'm glad my mom was here to see it."
Dwayne Wade (March 30)
"To do it at that level for so many years with guys coming after you, coming after you, coming after you, I just have a tremendous amount of respect for that. He hasn't had an easy run to do it. He's had a lot of injuries along the way and I know how hard it is to come back from injuries. He just came back stronger and stronger."
Blake Griffin (April 5)
"He has meant a lot to the game of basketball. You can see, not just to Lakers fans, but to fans around the world. He has been great. He has been motivating, inspiring."
Chris Paul (April 5)
"What he has done of the city of Los Angeles — he has entertained the whole city, the whole country, the whole world for 20 years now. Everything he gets, he deserves."It seems that all of these NBA stars are collectively saying one thing: Thank you, Kobe.
[Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images, Quotes courtesy of Lakers.com]