SACRAMENTO, Calif. - During Thursday night's national anthem at Sleep Train Arena, Kobe Bryant's gaze wandered to the retired jerseys hanging in the rafters. He spotted a few familiar names: Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac.
"It was like yesterday I was playing against them," Bryant said he thought to himself, "and their numbers are retired? What the hell am I still doing here?"
The Los Angeles Lakers star laughed as he recalled the moment from his final game in Sacramento, and his last contest at an arena where he made plenty of memories, the final one a spirited 28-point effort in a 118-115 loss to the Kings.
Next season, the Kings will move into a shimmering new downtown arena, leaving an old barn of a building where more than a decade ago Bryant and the Lakers faced the Kings in some of the fiercest, most memorable playoff battles the league has ever seen, particularly the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
In that series, the Kings and Lakers went the distance, and Game No. 7, in Sacramento, featured 16 ties and 19 lead changes. Bryant remembers the end of that game, how the Lakers pulled out a win, but, to him, the beginning is just as vivid.
"The announcing of the starting five and the lights going out, all those cool lights that they gave everybody and they're just waving them all around, you just kind of feel the electricity in the building," he said. "That's the best part."
For old time's sake, the 37-year-old Bryant, who is retiring this summer after 20 seasons in the NBA, was greeted by clattering cowbells during a lengthy introduction, during which he smiled, no doubt recalling his past here.
"It's a special place, not just for me, I think for the city itself," he said of the arena. "I'm sad to see this place go. It's been a long time coming for this city to get a new arena, and deservedly so, but at the same time, there's so much history here. The way that this arena is built, with the fans being right on top of you and you're feeling the electricity in the building, I'm going to be sad to see it go."
Bryant gave the fans here a fitting final show, hitting 10 of 18 shots after missing three games because of a sore right shoulder. He also flushed home a two-handed dunk after receiving an alley-oop pass from Jordan Clarkson, a play that Lakers head coach Byron Scott gave Bryant some grief about, too.
"Hey, didn't we talk about no more dunking?" Scott told Bryant, referencing how Bryant injured his right shoulder on a dunk last January and seemingly irritated it again this season when he dunked against the Houston Rockets.
"I told him, two hands, I'm okay,'" Bryant said with a laugh. "I went to the basket earlier in the game and I thought about dunking [with one hand], because my legs felt fine, but then I thought about my shoulder and I thought, I'm not going to chance it."
Bryant didn't play in the fourth, as he already had reached his minute limit, playing 31. Instead, Bryant watched the Lakers' promising young players lead the team back from a 27-point deficit.
"I'd much rather watch the young guys play," Bryant said. "They played so well and worked really, really hard. It's important for them to figure out how to close those games out without me on the floor. Obviously, I'm not going to be there next year, so it's important for them to learn how to do those things."
Old friends and foils
Divac, now the Kings' general manager, embraced Bryant in a touching moment at midcourt and the former Lakers center gave Bryant a parting gift: a No. 8 Charlotte Hornets jersey, a nod to the trade 20 years ago when the Lakers sent Divac to the Hornets in exchange for the recently drafted Bryant.
"It's awesome," a grinning Bryant said of the gift.
It's better than what Bryant said he didn't want from the Kings.
"I said, Vlade, if you're going to give me a retirement gift, just please, please don't give me a bacon cheeseburger and cheesecake,'" Bryant said. "Just don't do that."
Bryant was referencing the room-service meal he ate at the team hotel before Game 2 during the 2002 series. Bryant has long insisted someone tampered with the food, leading to a serious case of food poisoning that hindered his play in that game.
Divac, Stojakovic and former Kings center Brad Miller all stopped by the Lakers' locker room after the game to catch up with Bryant.
"I told [Miller] to expect a phone call from me and we'll go out and do a little hunting together," Bryant joked.
And, again, Bryant's postgame press conference was reflective and insightful, offering tidbits about his career and how he wants to be remembered.
"As a player that moved the league forward in my own way and hopefully inspired the next generation of athletes to compete with the same passion and treat the game with the same level of responsibility and attention to detail," he said. "If I can pass that on to the next generation, that's really the most important thing, for me, anyway."
Reflecting on 20 years
Is he leaving the game in better shape than it was when he entered the league 20 years ago?
"I hope so. It seems like that. There's so many great players in the league today. Not only that, but they really seem to care about the game. They're not easily distracted by outside things. They really seem to care about the craft of the game of basketball. As I walk away from the game, that's something I'm really impressed by."
One of those players is certainly Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.
"I told him during the game, 'You've been playing extremely well,' [since] he's getting 30 points and 15 rebounds and things like that," Bryant said.
"He said, 'Thank you.'
"I said, 'Actually, know you what, I take that back. You're playing well if you get like 40 and 25 [but] 30 and 15, you should pretty much do that every night.'
"As a player that moved the league forward in my own way and hopefully inspired the next generation of athletes to compete with the same passion and treat the game with the same level of responsibility and attention to detail." Kobe Bryant
"He just started laughing. I laughed, too.
"I said, 'No, I'm serious.' He's that good of a player. He really is."
In terms of whether he wants his No. 24 or No. 8 jersey retired, Bryant said "that's a coin flip for me." And he again stressed that his biggest career accomplishment was beating the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Finals, a title that avenged a 2008 Finals loss to the Lakers' archrival.
"That was tough," Bryant said of that series. "That was really, really tough."
Not long after, Bryant left the podium and disappeared into a swarm of fans and former players gathered in a nearby hallway, all seeking autographs or photos or just a quick word before he departed for good, saying farewell to a building that carries plenty of memories for Bryant, unlike so many others around the league.
Which explained why Bryant wore a smile most of the night as cowbells clanged and as he looked around, soaking in all the little things, appreciating it all one last time before he and the old barn, the site of so many epic contests, bid each other adieu.