Lakers-Sixers: Not the same without Kobe

Posted: February 09, 2014

Usually, the regular-season game that the Los Angeles Lakers play in Philadelphia each season evolves into a self-guided tour of Kobe Bryant's past, a 24-hour episode of "This is Your Life" in which Bryant is the host, the guest, and the studio audience.

He stops by all his old haunts around Lower Merion, remembering a suburban upbringing that always belied the street-kid ferocity with which he has played basketball, and he makes a point of visiting with his high school coach, Gregg Downer.

But when the Lakers arrived at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday, Bryant, as expected, had not accompanied them, the fractured bone in his left knee needing more time to heal.

The place was emptier for his absence, if that's even possible. Without Bryant's presence and participation, the Sixers' 112-98 loss blended into the bland continuum of their season, just another night between two teams who are a combined 35 games under .500.

Without Bryant, there was no healthy hate from the sparse crowd, no grudging appreciation for his greatness, no juice.

And at 35, having rushed back from a torn Achilles tendon in April, only to injure himself again in December, he has to be asking himself how many more chances he'll have to come back here.

Downer keeps in contact with Bryant. The two established a lasting bond in 1992, when Bryant entered Lower Merion as a freshman and Downer was 29 and in just his second year as the Aces' head coach. Over Bryant's 18 years in the NBA, over the five championships and the 31,700 points, over the countless training sessions to keep his body in shape and withstand all that physical punishment, his old coach has seen no decline in his competitive spirit, no sign that he is contemplating walking away anytime soon.

"I don't know how much outwardly he wants to talk about his legacy," Downer said Friday in a phone interview. "He's going to scrape every last bit of effort out of his career."

For a while, Downer thought the possibility of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer would be enough to keep Bryant playing. His recent injuries have made that goal all but impossible - he's nearly 6,700 points behind Jabbar - but they've also provided Bryant another source of inspiration, Downer said. The rehabilitation is nothing less than a test of his peerless pride, and his willingness to do whatever's necessary to return will allow him to retire as he'd want to: on his own terms.

"He doesn't really want the injuries to be his final chapter, and I think, deep down, he wants to fight as hard as possible for that sixth ring," Downer said. "The Lakers' situation doesn't look that good right now, but I really don't think he wants to have his ending be what it currently is. . . .

"I think the Lakers try to re-craft that roster to the best of their ability, and my thinking would be he hits it as hard as he can for two or three more years. Then, when he starts closing in on the age of 40, it would be my hunch that it would be time for him to get out."

Even Bryant would likely acknowledge that he can't be the player he once was. His legs won't allow it. The years have taken too much out of him. Nevertheless, whenever he does decide to walk away, the league will be lesser for it.

Before Friday's game, for instance, Sixers coach Brett Brown lamented that his players wouldn't have the chance to feel Bryant's fire up close. The Sixers' season, after all, isn't much more than a succession of these teachable moments, and, for Brown, Friday was an opportunity lost.

"You'd love to be able to show our young guys how he just competes," Brown said. "He is relentless. He's always been relentless, with the pride that he takes on his body and the speed that he came back from his injury. There is an alpha-dog swagger that he carries that is just beyond impressive."

The residue of that obsessive mindset remains at the school and the program that were his springboard. Lower Merion won a state championship in 1996, Bryant's senior season, and Downer could have made that achievement and his fortunate circumstances the topic of dinner-party conversations for years to come. Hey, did I ever tell you I'm the guy who coached Kobe in high school? Instead, the Aces have won two more state titles since, and Downer's closing in on 500 career victories.

"When we met Kobe, we saw a hatred of losing," he said. "We saw a work ethic. We saw a disinterest in second place that we took with us and became part of our culture."

No matter the level of competition, no matter when the end comes, that's a legacy.

That's what was missing Friday night, without Kobe Bryant in the building.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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