In the months since his tragic death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, the grief that has attended the loss of Kobe Bryant has been tempered somewhat by the flood of good memories that teammates, opponents and those close to Bryant have told.
Guard Lou Williams has a particularly good one from his season playing with Bryant and the Lakers in 2015-16, Bryant’s final NBA year. Williams recalled to ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude a game in Denver from December 22, 2015, in which Nuggets sixth man Will Barton dominated the first half with 23 points (Williams recalled it as 25) on 9-for-16 shooting. The Lakers entered the locker room trailing, 64-51.
Here’s how Williams described it:
“We were in Denver and Will Barton was going crazy. I think Will probably had like 25 (it was 23) at halftime and Coach (Byron) Scott came in and said we were making adjustments to Will and we were changing our coverage. Kob said, ‘I’m gonna guard him in the second half, don’t worry about it.’
“And everybody kinda looked at him. And Byron was going to keep talking and Kobe said, ‘No, don’t worry about him, I’ll take care of it, he won’t even exist in the second half.’ And we’re thinking, ‘This dude is cooking. Nobody’s going to stop him at this point, you know?’ He already has (23) at half, his confidence was sky-high.”
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers Had Been in a Free-Fall
A little more context makes the conclusion of the story all the better. In the days before the game, Bryant, who was 37 years old at the time, had been battling a shoulder injury and sat out the first game of the two-game road trip in Oklahoma City. The Lakers lost by 40 points to the Thunder and had lost four of their previous five games—all four losses coming by at least 20 points.
Before the game, Byron Scott gave a somber reading of the Lakers’ fortunes in Bryant’s final year. The team was 4-23 and the outlook was grim.
“We wanted him to go out on top and have a chance to win another championship,” Scott told reporters. “The reality is that’s not going to happen. We are a team that’s trying to reload — I don’t like the word ‘rebuild’ — and get back to where we’re used to being.”
There was speculation, too, that Bryant would miss the game in Denver because of the shoulder problem. That seemed to set up another loss, which would have added to an already dubious franchise-record streak that version of the Lakers was working on: They’d lost 17 straight games to Western Conference teams.
Story of the Second Half: ‘Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!’
Barton and the Nuggets were poised to make it 18. Then Bryant spoke up in the locker room, told Scott and his teammates not to worry about Barton. The result?
“Kobe went out and guarded him in the second half and Will Barton had 2 points in the second half,” Williams recalled. “When he put his mind to something, he meant it and he was going to get it done one way or the other.”
Bryant himself led all scorers in that game, with 31 points, 11 of which came in the final 8 minutes of the fourth quarter. The crowd at the Pepsi Center, knowing this was Bryant’s next-to-last appearance in the building, was chanting, “Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!” He was critical in stretching a 90-89 lead into a 107-100 lead that the Nuggets could not overcome.
Barton, for his part, idolized Bryant when he was growing up. Bryant spoke to him after the game, offering encouragement.
“Every time he guarded me, it was always something I looked forward to and was special,” Barton said in February.