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Kobe Bryant proves the only Laker with heart

SALT LAKE CITY — The pregame was standard swan song material. Kobe Bryant was introduced to a mixed chorus of boos and cheers, but soon the cheers won out. Chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” arose, then quickly died.

That’s how it always was with Bryant. Jazz fans hated him. But it was undeniable they were seeing one of history’s greatest players. So it went, the home franchise trying to show respect for the retiring star, without letting him own the evening.

Heaven knows there have been plenty of those.

“That’s a tough game, with a lot of emotion and everything surrounding that game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said before tipoff. “I want it to be a different team, but we’re on the schedule, so we’ll do the best we can.”

Their best was plenty. Rodney Hood nearly outscored the entire Lakers’ team in the first half, going for 30 points, as the Jazz won 123-75. Hood didn’t score in the second half after Bryant decided to start guarding him.

“Kobe wanted to take the challenge. It’s a shame that our oldest player has to take the challenge,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott. “Nobody else wanted to take the challenge.”

But for Bryant it was mostly about showing up for his final game in Salt Lake. The Jazz gifted him an assortment of farewell perks, including a 10-year pass to all national parks, a picture of Arches National Park, a season pass to Snowbird and a pair of custom skis.

Gov. Gary Herbert congratulated him as he left the court.

All in a night’s work for a superstar rolling into retirement.

Bryant scored on a classic turnaround jumper in the first quarter, but that was it. His line: 1 for 11 from the field, five points. It wasn’t that his heart was missing, or even his head. It’s just that the rest of him was 37 years old.

It isn’t the game-winning baskets that I’ll most remember about Bryant, though there were plenty. In time he grew to realize there is more to greatness than scoring. As for leadership, all you needed to know is that the Lakers preferred to part with Shaquille O’Neal rather than Bryant.

Mostly I’ll remember him as a rookie, wild, gifted and cocky, air-balling shots in the closing minutes of a playoff game against the Jazz.

But more than anything I’ll remember an empty arena.

It was prior to a playoff game in Los Angeles in 2010. I walked out of the pressroom toward the Staples Center court three hours before tipoff and heard the ball echoing. When I got near, I could see it was Bryant, alone taking shots.

Long after he had secured his Hall of Fame status, but long before tipoff, he was making sure when the Hollywood-style silk screen dropped for introductions, he would be as good as advertised.

Greatness is an elusive thing. Many can do it for a day. But legendary careers are made in the hours before others arrive.

Even truly gifted players can be stopped by clever defenses, hack-a-Shaq, double-teaming, etc. But when those players also outwork the others, containment isn’t an option. Karl Malone used to come off the practice court soaked in sweat, just as others were arriving. He would shower, put on a fresh uniform and then go to the real practice.

Malone would run the hills above his home high in the Salt Lake Avenues all offseason, even on his birthday. Since no one was watching, he did it to prove something to himself.

Bryant was known to wake at 4 a.m. to work out. Michael Jordan is said to have called Bryant the only player whose work ethic could match his.

Greatness is in dusty summer hills and empty gymnasiums.

Bryant didn’t come early this time. He was there as a parting courtesy to fans, playing just 28 minutes. When he left the court for the final time, he clapped for the crowd, which rose to its feet.

“It’s really, really different to be cheered for here,” he said, calling the response “awesome.”

He continued, “They (Jazz fans) are as brutal as you can get. So it feels good to have that response.”

The best players seem to like it that way.

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