TUALATIN, Ore. — Like anyone who has watched the NBA over the past few decades, the Portland Trail Blazers remember a lot about Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year career.
Damian Lillard remembers tuning in to watch one of his idols in the 4th quarter of his 81-point outburst 10 years ago against the Toronto Raptors. That night, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts alleges that Bryant’s historic outburst wasn’t even the best game of the night.
“Honestly that night, the best game of the night, Seattle was playing at Phoenix,” Stotts recalls of Seattle’s 152-149 win over Steve Nash’s Suns. “It was a double overtime, 150 something 140 something and I was watching that game until somebody told me Kobe was going off.”
Locally, Blazers guard CJ McCollum is well aware of the pain that Bryant has caused Blazers fans.
“It’s unfortunate it’s going to be his last game in the Moda Center,” CJ McCollum said. “I know a lot of people appreciate what he’s done for the game of basketball. Except for what he did to us (the Blazers) in 2000.”
Saturday, fans at the Moda Center will see Bryant for the last time in Portland. Bryant has said he will retire after this season.
Lillard has been around Bryant in a much different context than most. He was impacted by sitting next to Bryant at his first NBA All-Star Game in 2014. Bryant gave him the sage advice to shoot the ball immediately if he touched it. Or else, Bryant said, he wouldn’t get it back.
But what happened almost a year before that All-Star weekend stays with him to this day.
Lillard and Bryant had an epic duel in which Lillard scored 38 points, nine assists and three steals vs. Bryant’s 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks in a Lakers win in Portland April 10, 2013.
It was just the start of Lillard’s career and an exclamation point on a Rookie of the Year campaign.
With the power of hindsight, we know now that it was also the beginning of the end for Bryant as we knew him, for it was the last time he scored 40 points in a win.
But it was what Bryant said after the game, which now reads like something that the Kobe of the farewell tour would say rather than the player he was at the time, that stays with Lillard forever.
“I told him he was a bad boy,” Bryant told reporters after that game. “He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight.”
“It meant a lot,” Lillard said. “Being a rookie those are the kind of things that you like to hear. Especially from a guy like him being one of the greatest players to play the game. From that night on I never forgot about it. I went toe to toe with him. They won the game but I earned his respect.”
And after that night, the paths of the two franchises have gone in almost complete opposite directions, mirroring the trajectory of each player. The Blazers have made the playoffs two consecutive years. The Lakers are 57-151 since the start of the 2013-14 season, with Bryant missing much of that time with injuries.
McCollum shared an embrace with Bryant after the Lakers Nov. 28 visit to Portland and received recognition from the legend a day later in his retirement press conference.
And Blazers rookie guard Luis Montero has gotten on Kobe’s radar, thanks to his relentless trash talk from the bench.
His teammates won’t be surprised if Bryant hears from Montero one more time.
“I would guess that Kobe will probably hear him at least once,” Meyers Leonard said. “It’s more of a joking thing now. When he did his speech that he was going to retire after the season he mentioned Luis. He’s a smart guy, he’ll remember him.”