For a few seconds the Wells Fargo Center went dark and grew deafening Tuesday night, and when the lights had come back on and the sellout crowd's ovation had subsided and the echo of the public-address announcer's voice had faded, Kobe Bryant emerged a young man again.
There were boos, of course, inspired of that lingering and ironic resentment over a Lower Merion kid and Lakers great who seemed to cherish his Philadelphia roots only on those occasions he plotted to cut out the city's and the 76ers' hearts. But there was no way Bryant could hear them. The love for him was too loud, too long, too overwhelming, and in a sweet moment to savor during his 20th, his final, and probably his hardest season in the NBA, Bryant let it all wash over him, then turned it into fuel for the fleeting promise of one more transcendent night.
He came off a screen and flushed his first shot, a three-pointer from the top of the key. Then he hit his second, another three. He missed a mid-range shot, watched rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell corral the rebound and chest-pass the ball back to him, and drilled another three. All this, in the game's first 90 seconds, in his first road game since announcing that he would retire at season's end, in his last game in his hometown. Had Bryant kept up that pace, the ghost of John Updike would have had to write the game story.
He did not keep it up. He could not. He missed 18 of his final 22 shots. He finished with 20 points as the Sixers ended their 28-game losing streak, 103-91, continuing the pattern that has played out over his 14 games this season: lots of shots, lots of misses, lots of remembrances of who he used to be - the five championships, the two scoring titles, the 2008 MVP award - and no longer is.
He had joked about his age, 37, as he positioned himself behind a podium for a pregame news conference. "For an old man, I thought they'd give me a chair or something," said Bryant, shooting a career-low 30 percent from the field and averaging just 15.8 points a game for the 2-15 Lakers. "Got to save every ounce of energy in these legs." And still there were those awkward, ugly Lakers possessions when Bryant decided that he'd be damned if he were giving up the basketball. And he'd dribble and dribble only to force a shot and see one of the Sixers block it, only to fall back into the same single-mindedness that once defined his excellence, that helped the Lakers crush the Sixers in the 2001 Finals, and that now served to show all that time had taken from him.
"You'd always see Kobe impose himself on the game in anything, no matter who he was with," said Sixers head coach Brett Brown, who as a longtime assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs often was charged with scouting the Lakers and Bryant. "There was an arrogant side of him that he felt entitled to win a game, to go and take a game."
It was an attitude and aspect that, for all the taunting he took around here for the leafy privilege of his adolescence, Bryant took care to forge in the hottest hoops furnaces he could find: the city's courts, the city's pickup games, the city's summer leagues.
When he was 11, he said, he played a whole season in the Sonny Hill League without scoring a single point. "It was a turning point for me," he said, motivation to hone his game and harden his mind and heart so that he could compete with and eventually surpass the players who at the time were Philadelphia's best: Donnie Carr, Alvin Williams, Rasheed Wallace. It taught him "how to be tough, how to have thick skin," he said. "There's not one playground around here where people just play basketball and don't talk trash."
Now, he is regarded as and considers himself something of a statesman, which is the sort of thing that happens in sports whenever a great player ages, whether the label is warranted or not. As an 18-year-old in 1996, Bryant entered a different NBA from the one that exists today - a league with older, more seasoned players. And make no mistake: The lessons he could impart included many born of his own bad choices. He had acted with recklessness and petulance in the past, from those moments when he allowed his feuds with Shaquille O'Neal to bleed onto the court and compromise his play to those since-dismissed sexual-assault charges in 2003.
So when asked Tuesday what advice he might lend to the Sixers' Jahlil Okafor, to a rookie struggling with the trappings of wealth and stardom and youth, he gave an answer that belied the drama that often surrounded him.
"Stay focused on what you're doing," Bryant said, "which is playing the game of basketball."
That time is running out for Kobe Bryant, but he got one last moment to cherish in his hometown. They never loved him here before like they did Tuesday night, and it's jarring to think, after 20 years gone so quickly, that they never will again.