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Want to See Kobe Bryant Play One Last Time? Don’t Go to L.A.

LOS ANGELES — Lakers fans are spending hundreds of dollars on tickets to bid farewell to Kobe Bryant as he winds down his final season in a Hall of Fame-caliber career. They are coming to Los Angeles from out of state and from overseas. They are skipping work and sacrificing vacation days.


They might want to go to Phoenix, instead. Or New Orleans, or Salt Lake City, or anywhere else the Lakers are scheduled to play road games, because there has been a strange twist in the Kobe Bryant farewell tour: He is skipping a lot of home games, but not missing many chances to say goodbye to opponents’ fans.

Bryant has missed 11 games since announcing on Nov. 29 that he would retire, and 10 of them have been here at Staples Center, leaving many Lakers fans feeling as if they are missing out.

“Why wouldn’t you want to play as many games as possible for the home crowd, the people that have always been there to support you?” said Absalon Barraza, who flew in from Houston on the morning of March 1 for the Lakers’ game that night against the Nets. When he found out Bryant would not be playing, Barraza called the airline to change his return flight, went straight back to the airport and flew home that same night.

Images of Bryant waving and saying his goodbyes in arenas around the league, soaking in the adulation of crowds that were once hostile to him, have been among the enduring sights of this N.B.A. season.

Yet thousands of fans in Los Angeles have been left with another indelible memory: the moment they realized that Bryant would not be playing at the home game they were attending.

Bryant, who has lately been vexed by a sore right shoulder, has openly acknowledged making an effort to suit up for games in other cities around the league, where fans get one or two chances per season to see him, at the expense of games in Los Angeles, where his team plays 43 times per season (including what are technically road games against the Clippers).

But the reasoning, however practical, has not satisfied people like Hector Vargas, 26, who attended his first Lakers game in eight years on Friday, only to learn that Bryant was not playing. Vargas had received the tickets, which were $98 each, as a Valentine’s Day gift from his girlfriend, who had given him the choice between the game and a $1,100 Nikon D7200 camera.

Adding to his annoyance was the fact that Bryant had played two nights earlier on the road against the Denver Nuggets and seemed to aggravate his injury.

Fans at the Hawks-Lakers game on Friday saw only video of Kobe Bryant.CreditPatrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

“I don’t know if he thinks people are going to multiple home games,” said Vargas, a security guard from Simi Valley, Calif., who took a night off work for the game. “You can do that with Dodger games, but you can’t for Laker games because the tickets are too expensive.”

Bryant has been doing his best to play through pain and manage injuries that, in other seasons, might have compelled him to rest for weeks. In recent days, he has expressed his desire, for the sake of his fans, to be on the court as much as humanly possible. After playing in Denver on March 2, Bryant said he knew he needed to make an effort to play more games at home.

Bryant reiterated that notion after playing at home on Sunday in the Lakers’ upset victory over the Golden State Warriors. “I just feel terrible not being able to be out here every single game,” he said on the court during the ABC television broadcast. “It’s been tough laboring with the shoulder a little bit. For the last year, if I can give it a go, I’ll go out there and try.”

That same night, Bryant told reporters at a news conference that he hoped to play every remaining game on the schedule. Two days after that, however, he sat out a home game against the Orlando Magic. Lakers Coach Byron Scott said he thought Bryant was “50-50” to play on Thursday at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Arrias family, from left, Salvador, Breanna, Samantha and Leticia, were among those at the game.

The Lakers, at 14-51, have been one of the league’s weakest teams this season. Bryant’s absences have felt more significant to some people because, for them, Staples Center has primarily become a venue for them to honor his career and to pay their regards.

“It’s not about basketball this season,” said Stephanie Suarez, 28, a lifelong fan from Beverly Hills. “It’s about Kobe Bryant.”

Selecting a home game to attend on the Lakers’ schedule, then, has felt something like picking numbers at a roulette table.

Suarez’s experience heading into the team’s Feb. 26 home game against the Memphis Grizzlies mirrored the anxious ritual of many fans: watching ticket prices rise and fall, guessing whether Bryant’s shoulder pain would subside or intensify, reading reporters’ Twitter posts like tea leaves and waiting in the final hours before tipoff to hear his status.

Things felt promising through the morning of the game, so Suarez used her lunch break to buy one lower-level ticket on StubHub for $320. Three hours later, she read online that Bryant, who had played two nights before in Memphis, was not playing. She texted her friends and family: Go figure.

But Suarez merely had to drive across town. Others had it worse. In November, when Bryant announced his plan to retire, Nathan Creigh of Melbourne, Australia, decided that he would not miss a chance to see his hero play.

So Creigh, 27, a manager at a printing company, planned a two-week West Coast trip around the Lakers’ March 1 home game against the Nets, selling his car, a Holden Commodore Calais, and refinancing a loan to help meet the cost. He and his friend Matt Iannou each paid around $1,000 for tickets a row behind the Lakers’ bench.

Hours before the game, Creigh and Iannou were out shopping when a store clerk mentioned that Bryant would be sitting out that night. The pair’s entire trip, all the planning and expense, flashed before Creigh’s eyes.

“It was a nice day, the sun was out, and I basically went numb,” Creigh said. “I didn’t want to walk around anymore. I wanted to go back home. I was about to cry, and I could have if I thought about it a few seconds longer.”

Creigh composed himself and attended the game wearing a Bryant jersey and Lakers socks. He and Iannou sat directly behind Bryant. They tried to talk to him; he did not respond. Nevertheless, the opportunity to spend a few hours within the player’s orbit even if he was not in uniform was almost enough to salvage their trip.

In general, fans have seemed less discontented when Bryant has at least been on the bench when he is not playing. Chants of “Kobe!” have bubbled up at games when he was nowhere in sight. In the past, Bryant has preferred not to sit on the bench because it can make his back tighten up. Often, he uses those extra hours to get treatment or rest at home. But he has tried to be at the arena more frequently of late.

All of these concerns will hover over the Lakers’ final 17 games 11 of which are at home — as they did over the crowd outside Staples Center on Tuesday. Irvin Acosta and Sherrie Morales, a couple from Honolulu, had arrived that morning to attend the Lakers’ game against the Magic.

They had spent about $600 each on round-trip plane tickets, $400 for four nights at a hotel and another $400 or so for a rental car.

After hearing that Bryant was not playing, they tried to make the best of the night, posing for pictures in front of the statues outside the arena. Nervously, Acosta revealed that they also had tickets for the Lakers’ home game on Thursday against Cleveland. They had spent $200 each for tickets in the upper deck.

“I’m sure he will play against the Cavs,” Acosta said, not actually sounding so sure. “He better play. We wanted to see him at least once in our lifetime.”

By Robert Muriisa via Newyork Times.

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