When Kobe Bryant does not play in home games, he does not normally sit on the sidelines.
Prior to Tuesday night, Bryant had not appeared on the sidelines of any of the previous four home games he has missed due to injuries. After Bryant missed three straight home games due to a sore shoulder, NBCLA.com asked Bryant why he had not appeared on the bench to offer fans a glimpse of their retiring star sitting on the sidelines in a sharply-cut suit.
"I don't feel like sitting down there, having my back tighten up—simple as that," Bryant had explained rather bluntly.
Then, he'd missed another home game due to a strained Achilles. Again, Bryant did not appear on the bench during the game.
On Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, though, Bryant broke that trend when he walked out of the tunnel and onto the Los Angeles Lakers' bench. Only, the 37-year-old did not immediately find an open seat waiting for him. So, the 19-year veteran made a gesture, whispered a few words, rookie Larry Nance Jr. got up, players shifted down and Bryant took a seat at the end of the Lakers' bench.
"Well, I heard the huge cheer, you know, Kobe coming onto the court," Nance told the story of getting kicked off the bench. "I was just minding my own business, watching the game and I hear 'Nance! Nance! Get up!'"
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This moment made the rounds on the internet, of course, and Nance jokingly thanked reporters for making him famous as the guy getting kicked off the bench when Don Corleone wanted to sit down.
"I kind of looked at the coaches like, 'I'm going in?'" Nance laughed and said he gave up his seat out of respect and moved to the floor. "But they made me get off the floor, too. Apparently, that's a league-wide rule now."
So, why had Bryant joined the Lakers' bench for this game?
"I think it's because he challenged us last game—to see what we was [sic] going to do," second-year guard Jordan Clarkson told NBCLA.com. "I ain't [sic] going to lie to you. I feel like that's what it was."
On Saturday in Portland, Bryant had shared frustrations in an emotional speech that pointed its tip at the young core of the team. The Lakers had suffered their sixth straight blowout loss, and the team simply looked like it had lost its spirit.
"I think we did a good job," Clarkson said about Tuesday night's response to Bryant's challenge. "We just didn't finish the game."
Clarkson's willingness to talk about Bryant's message fell in line with other teammates and even the coach. However, both D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, who had reportedly both been singled out in the speech, did not entirely seem excited to discuss the topic on Tuesday night.
"I didn't take anything away from it," Randle said about Bryant's team talk, before sounding slightly defensive. "I compete. I work hard—have a lot of heart. Guys just get frustrated."
When Russell was asked about what he took away from Bryant's impassioned address, the rookie immediately lost his appetite for words: "No comment."
While Bryant's talk may have had mixed reviews, it may have been the reason Bryant broke form and appeared on the Lakers' bench. While there, his presence did more than simply appease fans hoping to say farewell to their favorite player. Clarkson pointed to technical advice Bryant provided about guys like J.J. Barea and Deron Williams, as Bryant had played against both players for a decade.
Russell, who got pulled late in the game, said Bryant quizzed him on which play the Dallas Mavericks would draw up for their final shot. One of the possible plays Russell mentioned turned out to be right, and the pair shared a look of acknowledgement on the bench, according to the rookie.
Randle attempted a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. When he missed, Bryant greeted the 21-year-old on the bench with a gesture of encouragement and complimented the forward for finding a way to get off a shot that had a chance of going in.
"I think it's great for the young guys," Lakers coach Byron Scott said about having Bryant on the bench. "When they come out of the game or they're just sitting there watching and learning that way, he's one of the guys that's talking to them about what's going on.
"Sitting there sometimes can be your best teacher when you're not in the game and you have a guy that's been there for 20 years doing it and kind of telling you what's going on and what's happening and sometimes probably even what's about to happen. That's great experience for guys,"
Bryant may well have only graced the sidelines because of a venomous rant he spit up in Portland, but his value on the bench while dressed in a suit cannot be overstated—for his teammates and for his fans.