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PHOENIX – Kobe Bryant terrorized the Phoenix Suns for two decades, making many enemies in the Valley. For one night in 2016, all of that was forgotten as the Suns and their fans celebrated the career of the Black Mamba.
On Mar. 23, 2016, the Los Angeles Lakers were in Phoenix for the last time that season. Bryant had announced his retirement just a few months earlier on Nov. 29, 2015, but he had sat out the Lakers’ three previous meetings with the Suns that season.
Nobody knew for certain if the Lakers’ legend would suit up to play Phoenix, a team he had tormented many times throughout his 20-year career, most notably in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Bryant averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in that series to lead the Lakers past the Suns in six games en route to Bryant’s fifth and final NBA championship. With the series win, Bryant and the Lakers ended Phoenix’s hopes of making it to their first championship series since 1993.
“We weren’t really sure if (Kobe Bryant) was going to play that game,” said Paul Coro, the Suns beat writer for the Arizona Republic at the time. “Up until then, he was sort of picking which games he would play.”
It didn’t stop hundreds of fans from lining up hours ahead before the game.
Neither team was good at the time. The Suns came into the game with a 19-51 record and the Lakers were 15-55. With no playoff ramifications at stake, Bryant was the main attraction.
A crowd of more than 18,000 fans filled sold out Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the crowd was dominated by Lakers fans chanting “Ko-be! Ko-be!” in their purple and gold Lakers jerseys. Some even sported his Lower Merion High School uniform. Numerous MLB stars, including Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout, were in town for spring training and came to watch Bryant play.
— Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald) March 24, 2016
Ty Nowell, who was in charge of content for the Lakers during the 2015-16 season, said every game during Bryant’s last season felt like a significant one, especially when the Lakers were the visitors. Phoenix was no exception.
“Everybody that could get a credential any which way was getting one,” Nowell said. “Pre-games, the baselines were just packed with people trying to get a camera-phone picture or say what’s up to him.
“There were a bunch of MLB guys guys there. Robinson Cano sat right behind me and Justin Turner was there.”
The pre-game reception for Bryant was a mixed bag. Okechi Apakama, a Lakers’ fan in attendance at that game, said he heard a few boos for Bryant pregame from Suns fans.
David Siorea, a neutral fan in attendance, said some Suns fans were still bitter toward Bryant. He said he even saw a fan with the image of former Sun Raja Bell clotheslining Bryant in the 2006 playoffs on a shirt.
Once the game started, the atmosphere shifted. As Coro noted in his story from that game, “Bryant was cheered from his first touch of the ball, with fans pleading for him to shoot each time. Just a longer dribble upcourt brought louder cheers for Bryant, who barely touched the ball over the game’s first three minutes. Once he was fouled by Tucker on a fadeaway, the “Ko-be!” chants began for his first chance to score on free throws.”
Siorea said the video tribute the Suns gave Bryant after the third quarter was met with more of a positive reception. “It was a very respectful tribute,” Siorea said.
Bryant did not give Suns fans a memorable last look from a performance standpoint. The Suns won, 119-107, and Bryant had just 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 28 minutes. Coro said it didn’t matter. He thought there was “massive appreciation” for Bryant that night.
After the game, Bryant gave Suns star Devin Booker, a rookie at the time, his shoes, signing “be legendary” on them. Bryant also gave Booker a signed program from the game, which featured both Booker and Bryant on the cover.
“(Bryant) was an idol of Devin Booker,” Coro said. “If you look at the history of them, they’re a little bit parallel just as far as age coming into the league as teenagers, being late lottery picks. Both of them are stars now and should have gone higher.
“They talked for like 10 minutes after the game. You could just tell how much that meant to Book.”
Coro said Bryant spoke fondly of Booker in the postgame press conference, praising his work ethic and moments where Booker, who scored 28 points in the game, shined.
Before he left the press conference, Bryant delivered a golden quote. When asked if he hated Suns fans, Bryant made his feelings clear about the team and its fans, before adding some nuance.
“There’s no misunderstanding,” said Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. “Nah, there’s no wiggle room there. I hated them. Absolutely.
“They stopped me from getting a championship twice (in 2006 and 2007 playoff exits). Damn right I hated them. Absolutely. Raja (Bell), Steve (Nash) and all those good guys. But at the same time, I loved them, because they brought the best out of me and my teammates. The relationship is a love-hate relationship because I hated the fact that they were that good and they kept us from winning but at the same time, I love how good they were. I knew we had to be better. It’s a love-hate relationship.”’T