Lone star setting: Kobe Bryant savors his last visit to a most formidable foe

SAN ANTONIO -- Gregg Popovich doesn’t have a specific memory. They all run together after so many years, so many timeless battles, all blurring into a single image that has come to haunt him -- Kobe Bryant, with a Spurs defender draped all over him, rising up from either baseline and burying a fadeaway jumper.

“I see him doing it all the time in my dreams,” said Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach, before facing the Los Angeles Lakers icon one final time Saturday.

Bryant knows the feeling, one he calls mutual.

“I used to stay up all night thinking about how to pick apart their defense and coming up with different schematics of how to attack them and the different coverages that they throw at you -- first-quarter coverage all the way through the fourth,” Bryant said after a 106-102 loss at AT&T Center. “I’d stay up, doodling on notepads and things of that nature of where their defense was coming from, where do I move Pau [Gasol], where do I move Lamar [Odom], and how do I beat it. Then you play against them and it’s like, ‘Dammit! That didn’t work. All right, now I’ve got to think of something else.’”

The Spurs can soon sleep easy. Only one matchup remains: Feb. 19 in Los Angeles. After that, everything is history, the memories from six postseason series (Bryant’s Lakers won four of them) and regular-season clashes (Popovich’s Spurs hold a 35-25 record over Bryant).

All told, Bryant has faced the Spurs in 90 total bouts, his most against any team, which is partly why he said his rivalry against this squad is “more personal” than any other, including the Lakers’ most bitter rival, Boston.

“San Antonio was year in and year out,” Bryant said.

Each team had title aspirations and often stood in the path of the other, and whoever prevailed usually celebrated with champagne in June.

But in his final game in San Antonio, Bryant gave Popovich and the locals a few more thrills before bidding adieu, especially in the third quarter, when Bryant scored 16 points, including 12 in a row during one stretch when he sank three consecutive 3-pointers.

“It was like watching Michael [Jordan],” Popovich said. “I was just watching. It was great. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”

Bryant finished with 25 points, but it came on 9-of-28 shooting, 4-of-14 from 3-point range. It was a tough performance akin to earlier in the season, when he was shooting less than 30 percent and complained about his 37-year-old body bothering him quite often.

“I felt like the ‘Tin Man’ for a while,” he said. “I couldn’t find any oil anywhere to loosen up these joints.”

Though the game itself was close, it was a mere sideshow to Bryant and the whole farewell.

Paying tribute to Kobe's career

Before the game, the Spurs played a moving 2½-minute video tribute while a spotlight shone on Bryant, seated on the Lakers’ bench. The video included interviews with Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, three longtime Spurs who have faced Bryant seemingly forever.

“You knew that every time you were going to compete against him, you had to bring it,” Ginobili said. “If not, he was going to make you look bad, that’s for sure.”

“Whether you were up 20 or down 10 or whatever it may be,” Duncan said, “you knew that he was someone you had to keep an eye on, you had to worry about, you had to fear, because he was going to bring it.”

“He was for us the Michael Jordan of our generation,” Parker said. "It was just an honor to play against him. Spurs-Lakers was a huge rivalry.”

“Kobe’s uniqueness lies in his uncommon ability to compete at the highest level night after night after night,” Popovich said. “There aren’t too many people who can do that. He’s obviously skilled, but his professionalism and being responsible enough to do that on a nightly basis has always astounded me. He’s the guy that is ready to put his foot on your throat and win at all costs every single night.”

And Popovich delivered a message to Bryant as well.

“It’s been a pleasure watching you all these years,” Popovich said. “Your competiveness is inspiring. I hope that you’re as successful in your next life as you’ve been in your first one. Good luck to you, man.”

Even the Lakers players were moved.

“That was the best video that I’ve seen all year since we’ve been on the road,” said Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, a San Antonio native. “I watched him growing up, I watched him kill the Spurs and all kinds of stuff, so it was definitely cool to watch that.”

“It was very nostalgic,” Bryant said. "Brought back a lot of memories. Just felt extremely touched by it. It’s great. It’s weird. It’s hard to get into a competitive mindset after that because you just feel so thankful for them even doing that. The amount of mutual respect.”

And unlike all of the other tribute videos by opposing teams, this one showed Bryant scoring points against the team that created it. In fact, there were quite a few highlights of Bryant overpowering the Spurs.

“It shows the respect of the battles that we’ve had,” Bryant said. “There’s been times where we’ve got the best of them. There’s been plenty of times where they’ve got the best of us. But the beauty was in the battle and the struggle between the two and the contrasting styles and the personalities. I think that’s what makes this journey that we’ve both been on so beautiful.”

Bryant particularly credits the Spurs with helping teach him discipline.

“When I first came in the league, I played off a lot of emotion, played with a lot of rage,” Bryant said. “But to beat San Antonio -- I mean, the year we got swept in ‘99 really showed me another level of the game in terms of the kind of coldness with which they played, the disciplined that they played with. That’s when I realized that I’ve got to get my game to that level and get it there now.”

Popovich and Kobe's development

Popovich appreciated the sentiment.

“If that’s true, even without us, I think he would’ve figured it out because we all know he’s highly intelligent and his IQ is special,” Popovich said. “So he would’ve figured out a little bit more tempered emotion and more directed emotion and a little bit of discipline can all go together and he did that. But I doubt he needed us to figure that out.”

The relationship between Popovich and Bryant will continue at the All-Star Game in Toronto, where Popovich will be coaching Bryant on the Western Conference squad. Speaking of which, Bryant said one of his favorite Popovich memories included a past All-Star Game when Popovich was coaching.

“He came up to me right before practice and he said, ‘Hey, should I do a real practice or should I do a whatever-walkthrough All-Star practice?’” Bryant recalled. “I said, ‘No, you’ve got to do a real practice, because I want to see what the hell goes on down there in San Antonio, so you’ve got to do all the real stuff.’ So he lined the guys up, put the guys through it and guys are kind of looking around like, ‘What the hell?’ And Tim just looked at me like, ‘Dude, you’re killing me.’ [I said], ‘Well, I want to see. I want to see what goes on.’”

The respect between the two brought about obvious questions about what could’ve been had Bryant played for Popovich all these years.

“We would’ve won a lot of championships,” Bryant said.

But what about being in a system where players often sit out if they’re dinged up or tired?

“It would’ve been fine, because they never would’ve known if I was dinged up or tired,” Bryant said with a laugh. “You’re on the training table?’ Nope! I’m good! I’m good!”

Popovich laughed.

“He would’ve given me just as hard a time as Manu and Timmy have done over the years,” Popovich said. “But when you’re competitors like those guys, you don’t want to sit.”

And what of Bryant in San Antonio? How would he have fared?

“I think Kobe did fine just where he is,” Popvich said. "He’s L.A. We don’t have a whole lot of L.A. around here."

Popovich added, “We’ve always been boring, from Day 1. Coach, players. We’re no fun. No humor. I’m still looking for someone to get in trouble so we can get some street cred. I’m tired of this goodie-goodie stuff.”

Kobe pays tribute to Spurs' consistency

Bryant has said he has been jealous of the consistency throughout the Spurs organization, a key component to the franchise’s longtime success.

“I think that starts at the top with ownership,” Bryant said. “They’re very clear on what the identity is of this team. They’re very clear on what they stand for and what they represent, and they’re very clear on the style of player that they want to have. They’ve been consistent with that year over year, which is why it becomes easier for them to select certain players to draft or certain players to trade for, because they’re looking for a certain type of player, right? I think that leads to consistency.

“We’ve had changes,” Bryant said, speaking of the Lakers. “We have Dr. Buss passing away, you have Jeanie and Jim, you have Phil [Jackson] coming and going, you have all these things going on, and so as a result of system changing as well, there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here, which is phenomenal and probably comparable to the [New England] Patriots, is they’ve had so much consistency from top to bottom.”

Bryant said that inconsistency has played a role in the Lakers’ free-agency struggles; the team has struck out in each of the past three offseasons, especially losing out last summer on All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who chose to sign with the Spurs instead.

“I think it has a lot to do with it,” Bryant said. “I think the players and free agents that come down the road, I think they’re going to want to know what we represent as an organization, what we stand for and what the direction is and things of that nature. I think that helps free agents be more comfortable going into a situation.

“If you’re a player and you want to win a championship, you’ve got to go to a place that already has those things established,” Bryant added. “They know what they’re doing. There’s no confusion. You know which direction the ship is going.”

Given everything, does the title-obsessed Bryant wonder how many more championships he could’ve won with such an organization as the Spurs?

“I mean, of course, I wonder that, but just for fun,” he said. :But I can’t sit here and complain. I’ve eaten pretty well, so I can’t complain that there’s no dessert left.”

All in all, Bryant kept referring to his final game in San Antonio as strange.

“It’s weird that this is the last time,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s strange, man. It’s strange. I remember the first time I came here and played, I was kind of like, ‘Is this really a barn? What the hell is going on here?' ”

In his final visit here, Bryant was showered with love, receiving standing ovations and several “Ko-be!” chants. When the buzzer sounded, Bryant hugged several Spurs players, then Popovich, then walked off the court, applauding the fans and saluting them.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Kobe Bryant!” the Spurs public address announcer said.

Bryant waved and disappeared into the tunnel one last time, saying goodbye to another arena where he made many memories, some of the best and worst he has ever known.