PHILADELPHIA -- Kobe Bryant's farewell tour begins in the city that loves and hates him.
Bryant will play his first road game since announcing he'll retire after this season in his hometown Tuesday night against the winless Philadelphia 76ers (0-18).
The five-time NBA champion's relationship with Philly fans has been turbulent throughout his 20-year NBA career in Los Angeles. Some love him. Some hate him. Regardless, nearly everyone respects his superstar talent.
With the 76ers, Eagles and Flyers all struggling, Bryant's return was a hot topic on sports radio on Monday.
"I always enjoyed watching Kobe play and consider him one of the greatest ever, but he didn't want to play for the Sixers so I held that against him," said longtime Philadelphia sports fan John Passero. "But if the Sixers couldn't win it all, I rooted for Kobe."
No doubt, Bryant will get a rousing ovation in an arena where he's heard mostly boos over the past two decades. People don't come to watch the Sixers, who've lost an NBA record 28 straight games and are one defeat away from breaking the league record for most losses to start a season. Fans come to see marquee opponents and nobody fills the seats like Kobe.
Born in Philadelphia, Bryant spent much of his childhood living in Italy where his father, Joe Bryant, played pro basketball for several years. When his family moved back to the United States, Bryant went to Lower Merion High School, located in an affluent suburb about nine miles west of downtown Philadelphia.
He once said early in his career that he wasn't from Philly because he didn't live within the city limits. That didn't sit well with local fans.
"He was a spoiled rich kid who grew up in a fancy suburb," said Louis Manitti, a former season ticketholder. "He was never one of us. He wasn't a hard-working blue-collar guy."
Local media were critical when Bryant decided to skip college and turn pro in 1996. The Sixers had the first pick that year and chose Allen Iverson. Bryant went 13th to Charlotte, which traded him to Los Angeles. Bryant's dad played four seasons with the Sixers, but he declared he grew up rooting for the Lakers. Of course, Sixers fans didn't appreciate that slight.
But nothing turned fans against Bryant more than a bold statement he made during the 2001 NBA Finals when the Lakers played Philadelphia. Iverson led the Sixers to a victory on the road in Game 1 and the Lakers won Game 2. Afterward, Bryant said he wanted to come home and "cut their hearts out" by winning the series in Philadelphia. The Lakers did just that, winning three straight games to clinch the NBA championship.
"I liked Kobe until he said he wanted to rip our hearts out," said Michael Rivers, a part-time season ticketholder. "He was too cocky, too arrogant and that was too personal. Just say you want to win and that's enough."
Bryant has never apologized for that comment.
"I'm not apologizing for saying I'm going to come kick some (butt)," Bryant told reporters before a game in Philadelphia in 2012. "I'm just not going to do it. But I certainly embrace the city and I love everything that it's taught me. So, I'm deeply appreciative of it."
The folks at Bryant's former high school certainly appreciate him. Bryant often returned to Lower Merion High School when the Lakers came to Philly. He's given pep talks to the basketball team, worked out at the practice gym and also donated about $500,000 to the school. His former high school coach, Gregg Downer, said Bryant still wears his Aces shorts under his Lakers shorts.
At a dedication ceremony for the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium five years ago, Bryant told the crowd at the high school: "This is where I came from. This is where I grew up. I didn't go to college. This is my university. This is where my memories lie."
Bryant kicks off hoops goodbye tour in hometown of Philly