Kobe Bryant’s play in the 10 seasons each he wore No. 8 and No. 24 makes it clear he deserves to be the first player with two retired numbers.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — He would peek up while sprinting out of the Staples Center tunnel for warm-ups, and again as the anthem played, and again, and again, throughout the game.
“All the time,” Kobe Bryant says.
During blowouts and heart-stoppers, amid stoppages and action, if upset or seeking a spark.
“All the time,” he says again.
Hidden in those quiet moments, the Lakers icon would gaze skyward, toward the southwest corner of the Lakers’ downtown Los Angeles home, and scan the franchise’s retired jerseys.
“All. The. Time,” Bryant says once more.
And all the time, every time, staring at the hallowed digits worn by household names such as West, Wilt, Elgin, Magic and Jabbar, Bryant would be transported back to his childhood in Italy, where his father played professionally, where Bryant devoured VHS highlights of those same players whose retired jerseys he would come to play beneath.
“I’ve studied these players,” he’d tell himself, “and there they are.”
On Monday night, Bryant’s two jerseys — the No. 8 that he wore for the first half of his two-decade NBA career and the No. 24 that he wore for the second half — will join those he long admired, as they’ll be retired during a halftime ceremony when the Lakers host the Golden State Warriors.
Bryant will become just the 10th Laker to have his jersey retired by the illustrious franchise and the first player in NBA history to have two numbers retired by the same team. (The Lakers decided that given Bryant’s success in both jerseys, it would be impossible to retire one number and not the other, a team spokesperson explained.)
Bryant will also become the first Laker to have his number retired who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, as he isn’t eligible until 2021. However, the Lakers announced in September that they had decided not to wait to grant Bryant the rare honor.
“It’s an impossible standard,” he says.
Bryant began his NBA career in 1996 by wearing No. 8, the number he wore in Italy and also a nod to the number he wore at the Adidas ABCD Camp, 143, whose digits add up to 8. He never intended to switch numbers entering his career, but he says he did so because the Lakers had changed directions by trading Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat in 2004. (A year prior, Bryant was arrested and accused of sexual assault, but in 2004 the criminal charges were dropped and Bryant settled a civil lawsuit.)
“It’s kind of a clean slate,” he says. “I started new. Just start completely fresh, focus on the number that meant a lot to me.”
He had intended to change his number immediately, but the deadline had passed, so it wasn’t until the 2006-07 season that Bryant donned No. 24, the number he wore early in his career at Lower Merion High School, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
The two numbers halve Bryant’s career neatly into two chapters, and, eerily, he scored almost the same number of points in each: 16,777 as No. 8, 16,866 as No. 24.
As Bryant considers his two different NBA selves, he focuses on one word: growth.
“When I first came in at 8, is really trying to ‘plant your flag’ sort of thing,” Bryant says. “I got to prove that I belong here in this league. I’ve got to prove that I’m one of the best in this league. You’re going after them. It’s nonstop energy and aggressiveness and stuff.
“Then 24 is a growth from that. Physical attributes aren’t there the way they used to be, but the maturity level is greater. Marriage, kids. Start having a broader perspective being one of the older guys on the team now, as opposed to being the youngest. Things evolve. It’s not to say one is better than the other or one’s a better way to be. It’s just growth.”
He adds, “It’s a new book, 24 — 24 is every day. Because when you get older, your muscles start getting sore. Body starts aching. You show up to practice that day, you have to remind yourself, ‘OK, this day is the most important day. I got to push through this soreness. My ankles are tight, they won’t get loose. I got to go through it, because this is the most important day.’ So, 24 also helped me from a motivational standpoint.”
Three of Bryant’s five titles came as No. 8, but his lone NBA MVP award came as No. 24 — ammunition for fans who prefer one or the other. Which Kobe does Kobe himself prefer?
He takes a long pause, rubbing his chin.
“It’s the season where I ruptured my Achilles, actually,” he says. “Because I felt like I was playing the best basketball I’ve ever played in my entire career.”
That would be the 2012-13 campaign, when the Lakers brought in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and seemed poised for another title run, only to be sabotaged by injuries, turmoil and infighting. Late in the season, Bryant pushed himself like never before to help the team barely reach the playoffs, but along the way, he essentially drove himself into the ground, even though his own teammates, coaches and members of the training staff tried to protect him from himself, as ESPN detailed in April 2016.
“I had to work like a maniac to be there, but I was able to be there,” Bryant recalls. “Mentally, emotionally, I was able to see five, six moves ahead in the game, and all sorta crazy s—.”
After the Achilles injury, Bryant was never the same, suffering season-ending injuries in each of his next two seasons.
“That was one of my favorite times, yeah,” he says, smiling. “It almost killed me, but it was fun.”
As he sits in the Lakers’ facility, which opened this past summer, Bryant looks around on a recent morning, admiring the state-of-the-art space.
The last time he was here, Bryant says, was his first visit, in mid-October, when he screened his animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” in front of a group of about 30, including animators from major studios.
With animation from Glen Keane, who helped create some of Disney’s most iconic characters (Aladdin, Ariel, the Beast), and music from Academy Award-winning composer John Williams (“Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Jaws”), the five-minute film is an animated version of Bryant’s farewell that was published in The Players’ Tribune in his final season.
The film centers on Bryant’s journey from boyhood basketball dreams to those dreams being realized, and, perhaps fittingly, on the night when his jerseys will join others he glanced at throughout his career, Bryant plans on debuting his short film — his most expansive post-NBA project yet — at halftime Monday at Staples Center.
While Bryant discusses the project and life after basketball, Molly Carter, a co-executive producer on the film, interrupts with news: “Dear Basketball,” she tells him, has just been short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, joining nine other films in that category.
“It did?!?” Bryant asks.
The list will shrink from 10 films to five on Jan. 23, and those five will compete for the Oscar on March 4.
Bryant throws his hands up, pumps his fists, shakes his head, exploding with energy, caught somewhere between disbelief and elation. A few celebratory expletives burst forth. Even if his NBA career has ended, the same Bryant fans saw celebrating championships and game winners has returned, if just for a moment.
Bryant gathers himself and takes a few breaths. He has won every honor an NBA player could imagine and is the Lakers’ all-time leader in a slew of categories, including points and regular-season games played. So what would an Oscar mean to him?
“It would mean more to me than all the other awards,” Bryant says. “Because it’s not something I’ve ever expected to do. It’s not something I was supposed to be able to do. As a kid, I grow up, I have dreams of winning championships and MVPs and all this other stuff. It’s something that I have in my mind. It’s a goal. Life deals you these cards, injuries happen, things happen, you pivot, and then write something that comes from the heart.
“Then it’s like, ‘OK, I have a passion with this storytelling thing. Let’s do this business.’ Then you blink, and then Glen animates it. Then you blink again, and you’re onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with John Williams. You blink again, and it’s like, ‘OK, he’s getting Oscar buzz.’ Now the train is going. You’re just like, ‘What the f— is going on?’ It’s not something that … especially for us athletes, you’re supposed to just really do one thing. You’re not supposed to be able to do anything else.”
And so Monday night will mark many things for Bryant — moving on from his NBA career, and moving forward with everything that has followed.
But above all, he says it will invoke joy, as he’ll be able to give fans, friends and familiar faces a proper farewell, which he says he wasn’t exactly able to do during his final game, because much of his focus that night was on the game itself.
Monday, he says, will be different.
“Joy, joy,” Bryant says. “This is my home. So, joy to be around the people who have literally seen me grow up — to tell them ‘thank you’ one last time.”