When the Los Angeles Lakers visit our Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, it will be the first time that Lakers great Kobe Bryant steps onto the Pepsi Center floor since announcing his retirement at the end of November. And it will be the second-to-last time (and quite possibly, the last time given Bryant's recent spate of injuries and rest) that Nuggets fans will get a closeup look at #24 in the purple and gold.
For most Nuggets fans, Bryant's departure from the NBA after a storied 20-year career comes with a full throated "GOOD RIDDANCE!!" as Bryant has been tormenting our franchise for nearly all of the 20 years that Bryant has played in the NBA. Not that the Nuggets are in some sort of rare company, of course, as Bryant has gotten the best of most of the teams in the NBA en route to seven NBA Finals appearances and five championship rings in those 20 years.
Knowing that Nuggets fans might be getting their last glimpse of Bryant on Tuesday, I thought it was a good opportunity to look back at some of Bryant's signature performances against the Nuggets - and even some (rare) occasions when the Nuggets got the best of Bryant and his Lakers.
Of course, we can't talk about Bryant's performances against our Nuggets without mentioning the 2003 summertime incident in Edwards, Colorado when Bryant was arrested by the Eagle County sheriff's department after being accused of sexual assault by a 19-year old female hotel employee. (Bryant was staying in Edwards in advance of knee surgery with renowned surgeon Richard Steadman.) Because even though the case was eventually dropped and Bryant settled out of court in a separate civil suit with his accuser, Bryant has been the recipient of more boisterous boos and hisses in Denver than in any other NBA city (except, maybe, Sacramento and Boston). And while the purpose of this column isn't to re-debate or re-live that incident, it has always and will forever be hanging in the air whenever Bryant is in Denver. How Bryant has historically responded to those unending choruses of boos on the Pepsi Center floor since 2003 is remarkable - in basketball terms only.
Moving past that incident from 2003, Bryant's history with the Nuggets is intertwined with the Nuggets history of the past two decades itself. Because while Bryant joined a good Lakers team in 1996 and has participated in the playoffs 15 times since, the Nuggets have undergone several transformations and appeared in 10 post-seasons during the "Bryant Era", facing Bryant's Lakers three times in the post-season along the way ... and winning none of those series.
Like the rest of the NBA, the Nuggets first encountered Bryant in 1996 when Bryant was a raw 18 year old just months removed from his high school graduation. One could hardly call the Nuggets that Bryant first played against in the 1996-97 season a real NBA team. Reeling from team president / head coach (and Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award Winner) Bernie Bickerstaff's destruction of the franchise, the Nuggets of 1996-97 were just a 21-win team. On a side note, it was Bickerstaff himself who passed on drafting Bryant (who went 13th) in 1996, declaring at the time that there was no one worth drafting past 10 (where the Nuggets had a pick) and instead traded down to 23 in one of the worst trades in Nuggets history.
After a forgettable rookie outing versus the Nuggets in Los Angeles on December 1, 1996 (three minutes, two points), Bryant made his debut in Denver on February 13th, 1997 at the old McNichols Sports Arena and scored nine points on 4-10 shooting in 20 minutes of playing time. Just one season later, as a 19 year old, Bryant would begin a multi-decade stretch of feasting on our Nuggets.
As a 19 year old in February 1998, Bryant had 21 points and seven assists in a 131-92 beat down of the 11-win Nuggets in Los Angeles. And Bryant would have his first of many 20-plus point games at Denver when he scored 23 points on the McNichols Arena floor in a March outing that saw the Lakers beat the lowly Nuggets by 21 points.
From Bryant's rookie season in 1996-97 through the 2002-03 season, the Nuggets stunk. During that time span, the Nuggets won 21, 11, 14, 35, 40, 27 and 17 games. Those win totals aren't typos. In fact, the Lakers so routinely blew out the Nuggets during that era that Bryant never had a chance to inflict real damage, except on February 11th, 2003 when Bryant went off for 43 points against the 17-win Nuggets at Staples Center in just 31 minutes (a game I attended in person). That game featured one of Bryant's all-time signature dunks, a sort-of 360-degree dunk on Nuggets guard Junior Harrington after a beautiful behind-the-back move on a fast break. You can see the play at 4:05 mark in this video ...
And even though that dunk is remembered by both Lakers and Nuggets fans alike, what is often forgotten is that Bryant's 42 point game came just one night before playing a home-and-home back-to-back against our Nuggets with Bryant going for 51 on the Pepsi Center floor the following night. Moreover, Bryant's 42 and 51 point back-to-back games versus Denver were during a nine consecutive game streak during which Bryant had at least 40 points in each game. Bryant was really, really good back then.
A season later, Bryant's world was upside down and it was visible on the court, too. As detailed above, during the off-season of 2003 Bryant would be accused of sexual assault right here in Colorado and had to play much of the 2003-04 season while going back-and-forth from NBA games to Eagle County to appear in court. When Bryant first visited the Nuggets that season, on January 7th, 2004, the Lakers shooting guard struggled to connect on just eight of his 23 field goal attempts as Nuggets fans drowned the Pepsi Center with boos and chants of "GUILTY! GUILTY!" and the Nuggets beat the Lakers handily by 22. That was the first season of the Nuggets' "Carmelo Anthony Era" and the first of 10 consecutive playoff appearances (three would come against Bryant's Lakers later on).
But Bryant would get his revenge six weeks later when the Lakers came back to Denver in late February. Again being drowned out with boos every time he touched the ball, Bryant scored 35 points (matching Anthony's 35) and dished out 10 assists while leading the Lakers back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit and a 112-111 Lakers victory on the Nuggets floor.
At the end of that season, Bryant's dysfunctional Lakers would be upset by Chauncey Billups' Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals and the Lakers Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal - after having a falling out with the notoriously difficult Bryant - would be traded by the franchise to the Miami Heat and Lakers Hall of Fame head coach Phil Jackson would be gone, as well. And in September of that year (2004), Eagle County dropped the sexual assault charges against Bryant.
Without O'Neal and Jackson, Bryant's Lakers missed the playoffs at the end of the 2004-05 season and what followed were two mediocre seasons (even though Jackson returned in 2005). But that didn't stop Bryant from beating up on our Nuggets occasionally, including on January 2, 2005 when Bryant again scored 42 points against the Nuggets in a Lakers home win. That would be Bryant's third of nine times that he scored 40-plus points against the Nuggets, including the playoffs. During this period, the Nuggets remained a low level playoff team that the entire Western Conference could count on for an easy first round opponent ... which wouldn't change until 2009.
After several frustrating seasons, Bryant's Lakers re-loaded during the 2007-08 campaign by adding center/power forward Pau Gasol and marched on to 57 wins and an MVP Award for Bryant. During that same season, the Nuggets were loaded with talent (Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin, Nene Hilario, Marcus Camby, J.R. Smith, etc.) and won 50 games, but that was only good for the Western Conference's eighth playoff seed and they almost missed the playoffs altogether. Meeting in the first round of the playoffs, the eighth-seeded Nuggets proved to be a walkover for Bryant's Lakers ... including an embarrassing 102-84 Lakers win at Denver in Game 3 after two blowout wins by the Lakers in Games 1 and 2. Game 2 featured perhaps Bryant's best-ever performance at the expense of the Nuggets when he exploded for 49 points and 10 assists in a Lakers walkover win. Those 49 points are the second-most ever scored by Bryant in a playoff game ...
After being unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs first round for five years in a row, the Nuggets revamped their roster for the 2008-09 campaign and won a (then) NBA franchise best 54 games which resulted in the second seed in the Western Conference. Easily besting the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks in rounds one and two, respectively, the Nuggets found themselves on a collision course with Bryant's Lakers for the 2009 Western Conference Championship. And unlike the 2008 playoffs when Bryant's Lakers easily swept the Nuggets, the Nuggets came out to play ... for four-and-a-half games at least.
Despite some epic performances from Bryant (40 points in Game 1, 41 points in Game 3), the Nuggets found themselves tied two games apiece heading into Game 5 at Los Angeles in late May of 2009. After playing to a tie in the first half of Game 5, the Nuggets had a power outage in the second half and were outscored 47-38 to close out the half and lose the game by nine. Given that the Nuggets had played competitively for four-and-a-half games, we Nuggets fans were feeling good heading into Game 6 at Denver on May 29th (the latest a Denver team had ever played in an NBA season!).
And then this happened ...
35 points (on 12-20 shooting), 10 assists and six rebounds for Bryant and a 119-92 decimation by the Lakers over the Nuggets right on the Pepsi Center floor. It was as if Bryant and the Lakers were faking weakness for four-and-a-half games and just waited until Game 6 to turn on the jets against our Nuggets. Hands down, it was one of the more depressing nights of my life as a Denver sports fan, which I documented here at Denver Stiffs a day after the series was over.
Knowing how close the Nuggets came to beating the Lakers in 2009, the Nuggets came out against the Lakers in the 2009-10 season with their guns blazing, so to speak. When the two teams first met that season in Denver the Nuggets beat the Lakers handily by 26. And to prove that that game was no fluke, the Nuggets beat the Lakers in Los Angeles in early February by 13 (a night that featured our first-ever Denver Stiffs Night Out!) and were neck-and-neck for the conference's top record for much of the season. Sadly, Nuggets coach George Karl (soon after coaching the All-Star Game) was stricken with cancer for the second time in his life and Nuggets season faltered into a first round exit versus the Utah Jazz. Alas, a third straight playoff matchup versus Bryant and the Lakers wasn't meant to be.
Karl and the Nuggets would see Bryant one more time in the post-season in 2012 when the Lakers were a somewhat diminished three-seed during the NBA's truncated lockout-shortened season. Winning just three more regular season games than a post-Carmelo Anthony Denver, the three-seeded Lakers hosted the Nuggets for another first round playoff matchup and once again Bryant responded strongly, scoring 31 points in Game 1 and 38 points in Game 2 - both Lakers victories. But unlike in years past, the Nuggets pushed Bryant and the Lakers to a Game 7 (even beating the Lakers in Los Angeles in Game 5 despite 43 points from Bryant), only to fall in the seventh game by nine points.
Watching Bryant eke out a 20th season now while shooting a putrid 33.9% from the field on one of the NBA's worst teams, it's hard to believe that he was scoring 43 points in a playoff game just over three years ago. Kind of like it's hard to believe that the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning threw an NFL record 55 touchdowns and was the NFL's MVP just two years ago. But as had been said ad nauseum during both Bryant and Manning's (seemingly) final seasons, no athlete - regardless of how mighty and majestic they've been for much of their career - can best father time. And thus, the time has come to reflect on who Bryant was as an NBA superstar and no longer on what he has become.
Assuming it's possible to separate Bryant the player from Bryant the person in a Colorado fan's eyes, Bryant the player was hands down the second-best two guard I've ever witnessed in person. Having lived in Los Angeles from 1998 through 2009, between watching Nuggets games on NBA League Pass I saw most of Bryant's games from the nascency of his career in the late 1990s through his re-ascension up the NBA championship mountain in the latter part of the 2000s. I watched the seemingly routine buzzer beaters, 40-plus point games and tireless work ethic of one of the NBA's all-time greats. And even though my Lakers hatred never subsided (and never will), I must confess that I rarely missed watching them play. Bryant wasn't just great in the box score; he was incredibly entertaining to watch. Simply put, you always got your money's worth with Kobe Bryant and there are very few players in NBA history that you can say that about.
When Bryant returns to Denver on Tuesday night for what could be his final appearance at the Pepsi Center, he'll undoubtedly be received by the same cascade of boos as he has before, mixed in with countless cheers from the bandwagon Lakers fans that always seem to take over about half of the Pepsi Center stands. But regardless of where you come down on Bryant the person, his corny retirement, his treatment of teammates and so forth, no Nuggets fan nor NBA fan can deny that he was a transcendent player, the likes of which we likely won't see again.
And like other all-time great Lakers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Shaquille O'Neal, a lot of what made Kobe Bryant great came at the expense of our beloved Denver Nuggets.