NEW YORK - There was no shortage of trips down memory lane when the Los Angeles Lakers met the New York Knicks in a Sunday matinee game at Madison Square Garden. While the tight game ended with the Knicks prevailing 99-95, much of the sold-out crowd seemed more enthralled by perhaps the last glimpse of an aging basketball legend than the final score.
When Kobe Bryant stepped to the line for five free throws in the third quarter after his former Lakers teammate and now Knicks head coach Derek Fisher was ejected arguing a foul, the familiar and nostalgic chants of “M-V-P,” which were primarily reserved for Staples Center, rained down on Midtown like an “encore” call at a Broadway show.
The arena’s electricity was more about Bryant in potentially his final game in New York, with a large portion of Lakers fans in attendance. After the game, Bryant, who remains uncertain about his future, acknowledged the rush of perhaps his final curtain call in the Big Apple.
“It felt amazing,” the 37-year-old said of the MVP chants. “I remember my first game coming in here and not knowing what the hell to expect or what to do. But just being in such a great arena… to be here 20 years later and have that happen, it feels amazing. I’m very fortunate.”
It didn’t seem to matter to many that Bryant was in the midst of one of his worst shooting slumps, converting just six of his 19 shots, in a season when he’s shooting just 32.1 percent from the field. Bryant even air-balled a layup in the fourth quarter, but nobody seemed to bat an eye. It also seemed irrelevant that the Lakers own an abysmal 1-5 record, and the Knicks won their first home game of the year.
Knicks and Lakers fans were loving the theater of watching Bryant go head-to-head with New York’s hometown star Carmelo Anthony, and with Lakers legend Magic Johnson watching it all from courtside.
“It kind of reminded me of back when I was in Denver and those battles back then,” said Anthony, who led all scorers with 24 points on 8-20 shooting. “It’s always good to go against him -- my big brother. Even in his 20th season, contemplating retirement, you always have to stay on your toes. He’s so smart of a player. It’s more of mental game for him now, getting to his spots, getting the guys on his team going.”
Anthony acknowledged that there would be a void if this is Bryant’s last season.
“You know, if this is his last hoorah, I’m going to miss him. I said it’s not going to feel the same with him being gone and him kind of helping me throughout my career and being that guy I talk to,” he said.
Bryant said he felt “appreciative of playing in such a historical building all these years,” and described guarding Anthony as “awesome.”
“It felt good chasing him around,” Bryant said with a smile.
In an otherwise ordinary game between two struggling teams, both the Lakers and Knicks shot under 40 percent from the field and often looked out of sync. There were no boos from the normally demanding Garden faithful about the lackluster play. It was the star power that mattered.
Indeed, the spotlight was on the 17-time All-Star, and there was plenty of cheers from those wearing purple and gold jerseys and shirts of No. 24 and No. 8, which Bryant wore from 1996 to 2006, or the first half of his illustrious career.
“I came to one of his first games at MSG when I was seven years old. I sat courtside with one of my best friends, and I feel like I was coming full circle coming here today,” said David DeMattio, 25, of Fairfield, Connecticut, while donning a Bryant shirt and Lakers hat.
A lifelong Laker fan, DeMattio said he was fortunate to begin following the team when they were on the cusp of winning three NBA titles from 2000-2002. He said it’s been difficult to watch the Lakers with Bryant sidelined due to injury the past two seasons, but he has maintained his support of the team and Bryant.
“[Kobe’s] played well today. He’s put up some good shots. But it’s sad, though. It’s the end of an era.”
Beatrice Dela Pena, 32, of San Diego, was also wearing a Bryant shirt and expressed disappointment by the possibility that this will be Bryant’s last season.
“I think everyone wants to see him playing and do well,” she said. “People see him as a legend. He’s been around for a long time, so it’s always sad to think he’s not be going there potentially in the future.”