MINNEAPOLIS -- Kobe walked out alone. A longtime associate from Nike and a Lakers staffer trailed a few steps behind him as Kobe made his way to the team bus on what, for this city, was a balmy 40-degree night.
Next, the Los Angeles Lakers will play another game Monday in Indiana. But now that Bryant has passed Michael Jordan to move into third place on the all-time scoring list, that game -- and most of the rest of them this season -- won't mean much except to the guys playing and the fans around the league who likely have some 18 months left to watch one of the all-time greats. These Lakers probably aren't going anywhere but the lottery this season, no matter how many points Kobe incredibly continues to score at age 36 and after two major injuries.
When the game was stopped at the Target Center on Sunday to honor Bryant after he sank two free throws to move past Jordan's 32,292 career points, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor -- a close friend of late Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss -- presented him with the game ball. Kobe hugged Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders and Lakers coach Byron Scott, both of whom were there for Bryant's first NBA game in 1996. It was a nice tribute, a nice moment. But it was also a lonely moment.
All the coaches and teammates he's won with, all the men who understand that dark side he let the cameras see the other day after practice, are elsewhere now. Pau Gasol tweeted congratulations from Chicago. Phil Jackson tweeted that he was looking forward to watching one of his protégés pass the other. Derek Fisher is in a video room somewhere trying to figure out how to fix the New York Knicks.
The only people on this team who really know Kobe, the ones who have been there for his 19-year career, are Lakers staffers like trainer Gary Vitti. Bryant's longest-tenured teammate on this squad is Jordan Hill, who became a Laker at the end of the 2011-12 season.
"It's always hard to look at those changes and to go through those changes," Bryant said as he stopped for a moment on his way out of the arena. "But it's part of my responsibility here with this organization and this franchise.
"I don't run from it."
That is what people keep expecting him to do, isn't it? To run from this lottery-bound team and find a contender to chase a sixth ring with. When cameras caught him trash-talking his teammates after practice this past week, it seemed like maybe he'd finally had enough.
But Bryant knew this was a possibility when he signed that two-year, $48.5 million extension last fall. Taking that contract made it harder for the Lakers to bring in co-stars. They had room for one max player last summer, not two. He also knew if he'd waited to sign the extension, the Lakers would have had more flexibility to build a contender -- even though the chances of landing either Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James still would have been slim.
But the contract wasn't just about the Lakers committing to him; it was also about him committing the final two years of his career to them. They both sealed this marriage for life, for better or worse.
"I ain't going nowhere," Bryant said emphatically. "We're a family. It makes me want to just play so much harder. I don't look at it as the Buss family and myself, I look at it as one family."
Bryant doesn't have a ton of friends around the league. He's always been something of a loner, which is why it was so surprising to see him having breakfast with Rajon Rondo a few weeks ago in Boston. But family means something to him. Fisher once said he thought Kobe would just disappear and coach his daughters' soccer teams after he retired. Even now, Kobe is often spotted dropping them off at school in the mornings.
So when he talks about his loyalty to the Buss family this way, it's not a line. It's what he's playing for now.
Deep down, in Kobe's most honest moment, that's what feels meaningful to him. He made this bed, and this is how he lies in it. This is how he will get up Monday for the game in Indiana, and all the rest of them this season. Part of what he signed up for with his contract extension was helping the Lakers and the Buss family get through this low moment. To take whatever was coming at him, good or bad, without complaint.
If next season is indeed his last, Kobe won't receive the victory lap that Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera did during their final seasons. He'll get ovations like he did Sunday night in Minnesota when he passed Jordan, but just as many people will pick at his warts.
He's not running from those, either. If anything, it seems like he's wanted to expose those warts, the ugly side that even he said made him "uncomfortable" when he watched video of his practice rant the other day.
Kobe is featured in a documentary for Showtime that will be released in February. It was originally set to air at the beginning of the season, but Bryant felt he wanted to push things further, to open himself up even more. In a new trailer released this week, he called it "therapy on film."
Perhaps he knows most people will never understand him -- why he is the way he is, how the dark side that drives ruthless competitors like him and Jordan can look ugly in the light of day.
"I think competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people," Bryant said. "When you peel back truly what's inside of a person to compete and be at that high level, it scares a lot of people that are comfortable just being average.
"I think if you look at Michael's retirement speech, people really got a chance to see how he ticks. It scared a lot of people, right? But that's just the reality of it. You can't get to a supreme level without kind of channeling the dark side a little."
Kobe says Jeter has that same competitive spirit, but "he just hides it better -- or chooses to hide it. I don't choose to hide it."
It's too late for Bryant to start trying to hide it. Way too late. Instead, he's showing more of it. People may not like it or understand it, but he hopes they respect it.
There's a sadness in knowing that the people who know Kobe best weren't in Minneapolis on Sunday to celebrate with him after he passed Jordan. He felt it, too. It would've been sweeter to pass Jordan on Friday night in San Antonio. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would've been there. Tim Duncan, the only other current player with five championship rings, would've been there. They have done battle with him on the biggest stage.
But it wasn't to be. On this awful Lakers team, Bryant had to play point guard for most of the fourth quarter and overtime. The Spurs double-teamed him every chance they got. Scott said he looked "exhausted." His legs were gone. He missed five of his final six shots and came up eight points short of Jordan.
Instead, he had to cross this milestone in Minnesota against a bunch of young players who grew up idolizing him.
"Yeah, it was a strange feeling," Bryant said. "Because I remember being Andrew Wiggins. I remember playing against Michael my first year. To be here tonight and play against him, seeing the baby face and the little footwork or little technique things that he's going to be much sharper at as time goes on -- it was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool."
That is how life goes, isn't it? We go out the way we came in.