LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With Kobe Bryant set to end his stellar 20-year career with the Lakers later on Wednesday, Los Angeles was buzzing at the prospect of seeing one of the all-time National Basketball Association greats bow out.
Lakers fans arrived in droves at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles several hours before the scheduled start of Bryant’s farewell home game against the Utah Jazz, many of them eager to buy Kobe merchandise, including his No. 24 jersey.
A Lakers ‘Fan Fest’ was organized outside the venue, giving supporters a chance to get photo opportunities with the five NBA Championship trophies won by Bryant during his time in Los Angeles.
Rodrigo Duarte, a 24-year-old IT consultant from Brazil, had traveled from South America to attend Bryant’s final league game before he makes the trip home on Thursday.
“I just came for the game,” Duarte, who had a billboard strung around his neck bearing the legend: “From Brazil to Kobe’s last chapter. Thanks KB”, told Reuters outside Staples Center.
“I got tickets as a gift from my parents, but I don’t know how they got them!
“I’ve been a Kobe fan since the age of 10, when I started watching him on TV and I wanted to do the same things that he did on court. I bought a basketball and I tried to make the same shots and the same moves. I was fascinated by the way he plays.”
Asked how he viewed Bryant’s NBA legacy, Duarte replied: “Kobe was all about change, innovation and having no fear to play the game.”
Bryant, an 18-time All-Star, has cemented his place among the pantheon of NBA greats with a career that also includes scoring titles, the third-most points in league history and a league most valuable player award in 2008.
Though his beloved Lakers have spluttered this season to an embarrassing record of 16-65, the worst for a franchise that has won 16 NBA championships, his league farewell has sparked huge interest at the box office.
Demand for tickets has been as a high as a pivotal Lakers playoff game, ranging in the secondary markets from $700 to $10,000.
According to Stubhub, owned by eBay and the largest online ticket resale site in the United States, the most expensive ticket sold for Wednesday’s game went for $27,500.
Media interest has also been at a playoffs-type high with around 500 credentials issued by the Lakers, who had to turn down “several hundred more in requests”, according to team spokesman John Black.
Thirty-two international media outlets will be covering Bryant’s farewell game, including six alone from China where the Lakers shooting guard has long been one of the most popular players in any sport.
Since announcing last November he would retire after the 2015-16 season, Bryant has been making a farewell tour of the league across the United States and Canada that will now conclude with Wednesday’s home game against the Jazz.
“My heart can take the pounding, my mind can handle the grind, but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” said the 37-year-old who has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury