For 20 seasons, Kobe Bryant entered opposing NBA arenas with a roar.
The last game he’ll ever play at the United Center ended with more of a whimper.
Through no fault of his own. After all, Bryant scored 22 points, despite playing 27 minutes, and only two minutes and change in the final quarter.
But this is what Lakers basketball has become these days. Saying goodbye to Bryant in his final season, and watching a lack of talent around him.
“It was just great to be out there with him,’’ Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore said of Bryant after the 126-115 win Sunday night.
Bryant’s performance was almost anticlimactic compared to all the pre-game celebration of the five-time champion.
The Bulls honored Bryant with a video tribute during the player introductions, but it was his farewell meeting with the media in which he raised some eyebrows. Not only did he again confess how closely he came to joining the Bulls as a free agent, but admitted that he and his wife were even planning a trip to Chicago to look at homes.
“I did,’’ Bryant said, when asked if he thought he was going to be a Bull in 2004. “Very much so. My wife and I were actually planning travel arrangements to come out to Chicago to look at some homes and schools and things like that. And then Shaq [O’Neal] demanded a trade. And it was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to trade me anywhere.’ So the sign-and-trade option just pretty much went off the table.’’
Not the only Bulls memory Bryant shared, either.
He talked in length about Michael Jordan and how influential he was in Bryant’s growth.
“No words can really do it justice,’’ Bryant said. “When I came to the league and matched up against him, what I found was he was extremely open to having a mentor relationship. Giving me a great amount of advice and amazing amount of detail – strategies, workout regimens, things like that.
“Seriously, I don’t think people understand the amount of impact he had on me as a player and as a leader. So if I was fortunate enough to come here, if that trade had happened, it’s not a pressure situation to live up to what he’s done. It’s more like, ‘OK, I’m carrying on this man’s legacy. Can I do it justice? Can I represent Chicago the way it should be represented in his honor?’ Just a tremendous, tremendous amount of influence.’’
Not that the evening was without a Bryant moment on the court.
After scoring only 10 points through the first half, Bryant came out in the third quarter and hit four-straight jumpers in classic Black Mamba fashion. His 23-footer with 9:30 left in the quarter actually tied the game up.
But there’s a reason the Lakers are 11-46, and that was exposed throughout the rest of that third quarter as the Bulls (29-26) outscored Los Angeles 31-15.
That meant Bryant exited the United Center like he did in his debut back on Dec. 17, 1996 – with a loss.
“That’s the thing you look at, just how competitive he is,’’ Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Bryant’s career. “You look at a lot of the players that have won championships and they have some of that in them. It’s that nastiness, that nasty streak that you have to have to do anything it takes to win in anything. Whatever that is. Kobe absolutely had that quality to him.’’