Kobe awes as he plays into the sunset of historic career (updated)

Kent Bazemore recalls the day he first met Kobe Bryant.

He readily admits to being in awe upon seeing the Lakers star nearly two years ago.

“First time he walks in the locker room I have my head down tying my shoes before practice,” Bazemore said. “I look up and it’s him. I was like ‘Wow.’ He walks in with his confidence, his aura, and you can just feel his presence.”

Bazemore, who stayed up into the early morning as a youth watching Bryant play on television, was a late-season acquisition of the Lakers in his second NBA season of 2013-14. Bryant was limited to just six games that season with a left knee fracture. They two never played together as Bazemore would sign with the Hawks the next season. Still, they were teammates for a short time and Bryant left a lasting impression.

Bryant will make his final appearance in Atlanta on Friday after he recently announced that this will be his final season and the culmination of a 20-year NBA career. A few at Philips Arena may cheer for the Hawks but the spotlight will be on Bryant who will be remembered as one of the greatest to play the game of basketball.

The Hawks are planning a special recognition of Bryant’s career with an in-game video tribute Friday.

“He’s a special player,” Bazemore said. “I spent a little bit of time out there. I spoke with him a few times. He’s a great guy. You hear the stigma about him before you get there that’s he’s an (expletive) or all that but it’s farthest from the truth.

“For Kobe to come clean and say ‘My body is telling me it’s time to go’ is kind of frightening. You look at a guy like that and he seems invincible to you. The road ends someday.”

The 37-year-old Bryant will play his 1,516th game, including the postseason, on Friday in a highly-decorated career. Consider that Bryant:

* Is the third all-time leading scorer in NBA history with 32,734 points

* Won five NBA Championships

* Was named an All-Star 17 times and made 14 starts

* Won one NBA MVP award

* Won two NBA Finals MVP awards

* Won four All-Star Game MVP awards

* Was named First Team All-NBA 11 times

* Was named First Team All-NBA Defensive Team nine times

* Was NBA Player of the Week 33 times

* Was NBA Player of the Month 17 times

So, his resume spills over onto a second and third page.

The lifetime Laker has exactly two career transactions. He was selected by the Hornets 13th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft on June 26. He was traded to the Lakers the next month on July 11 for Vlade Divac. The rest has been history.

When asked if he had any memories of facing Bryant, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said “More like nightmares. He is one of the most incredible players in our league, our generation.”

Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham knows Bryant well. The two were rookies together in 1996, Ham with the Nuggets. They faced each other in their very first professional game when the Lakers and Nuggets played two exhibitions in Hawaii. They competed against each other in the NBA Dunk Contest. Ham also spent two seasons as a Lakers assistant coach before joining the Hawks.

“He was very, very focused,” Ham said. “The pressure of the way he approached the game, if you are not a competitor, it could definitely turn you off and you don’t understand where he is coming from. People would call him selfish this and selfish that. I saw it a little bit differently when I had an opportunity to be there with him for two years. It really confirmed what my previous thoughts already were. What he goes through to prepare and to get on the floor and to excel at the level he excels at, if you are not doing that he has no use for you. He expects everyone to approach the game that way.

“Unfortunately, in the NBA, you have guys who play for different reasons, different motivations. Some of them are individual. Some of them are financial. Some of them are historic ambitions to win championships and more games than previous. And you have some guys that in the process of their own approach end up checking all three boxes. Just because of the work they put in.”

Bryant has struggled this season, prompting him to announce this will be his final season in a poem he wrote for the Players Tribune that began “Dear Basketball.” In the two games since, Bryant has scored 20 and 31 points, including the game-winning basket against the Wizards Wednesday. Bryant will try to end his career as Dylan Thomas penned in a poem of his own and “do not go gentle into that good night.”