PHOENIX -- If the locals here ever felt that Kobe Bryant hated their city and NBA team after years of fierce playoff battles between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns, well, he confirmed in his final visit to this area that, yes, that's exactly how he felt.
"There's no misunderstanding, there's no wiggle room there -- I hated them, absolutely," the Los Angeles Lakers icon said Wednesday after a 119-107 loss to the Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena, his last game in Phoenix.
The Steve Nash-led Suns eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, but the Lakers knocked them out in 2010 on the way to Bryant's fifth NBA championship.
Hence, Bryant said, he loathed the Suns.
"Yes, they stopped me from getting a championship -- twice," he said. "Damn right I hated them. Absolutely. Raja [Bell] and Steve and all of those good guys. Hated them. No question. But at the same time, I loved them, because they brought the best out of me and my teammates. So the relationship is a love-hate relationship because I hated the fact that they were that good and kept us from winning, but at the same time, I loved how good they were and I knew we had to be better. It's a love-hate relationship.
"That was a real rivalry to me. The Sacramento thing really wasn't one because we beat them every time. Phoenix, they kicked our butts and we had to bounce back and overcome them. That's a true rivalry."
"That was a real rivalry to me. The Sacramento thing really wasn't one because we beat them every time. Phoenix, they kicked our butts and we had to bounce back and overcome them."Kobe Bryant
In his final game in Phoenix, Bryant received a warm video tribute, chants from the fans and a standing ovation when he checked out of the game late in the fourth quarter after finishing with 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting in about 28 minutes of floor time.
"You can't dream this as a kid, you know," Bryant said. "You can't tell me at 6 years old that I'd play 20 years with my favorite basketball team and when I retire get this kind of response from city to city. There's just no way. It's surreal. I feel extremely, extremely blessed to be able to have this opportunity to go through this. It's crazy."
But Bryant said he doesn't feel sad that the rivalry has come and gone, or that the players he faced then have been replaced by the next generation of NBA talent.
"It's great. It really is," Bryant said. "Not too many players are fortunate enough to see the growth of the league that way. I've seen five generations. Now [Suns rookie guard Devin Booker] wasn't even born when I played my first game, and I'm still playing. That's crazy. Now I get a chance to talk to him. I get a chance to help them. I get a chance to see where the league is going, because I know where it's been. It's a blessing to be able to see that."
Speaking of Booker, the former Kentucky Wildcat scored a game-high 28 points Wednesday and mimicked Bryant along the way.
"I remember me catching the ball, and I had it in kind of the short post," Booker said. "And I missed the shot, but I used one of his moves against him, and that's the first thing he said against me -- 'You're trying to use my own move against me?' He said that right at the end of the game, so it was fun. That was the only time we matched up, but, like I said, it's something I will remember for the rest of my life."
Bryant remembered that moment well.
"He went straight to my move [the] first time he caught it," Bryant said of Booker. "[I said], 'You're not going to beat me on my move, man!' But it was great to see. It was absolutely great to see. I remember I did the same thing with [Michael Jordan]."
Bryant signed a pair of sneakers for Booker after the game with the inscription: "Be legendary."