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Kobe's final trip to Target Center earns fandom of home team

Ask Zach LaVine about Kobe Bryant and he'll rattle off the highlights from memory: Sixty-two points in three quarters. Forty-two in a half against Michael Jordan. A dunk off the backboard that LaVine can today replicate but as a preteen fan could...

Ask Zach LaVine about Kobe Bryant and he’ll rattle off the highlights from memory: Sixty-two points in three quarters. Forty-two in a half against Michael Jordan. A dunk off the backboard that LaVine can today replicate but as a preteen fan couldn’t fathom.

“That was my guy growing up,” said LaVine. “It’s kind of weird not thinking about him in the league anymore.”

Tonight marks Bryant’s final visit to Target Center - the last opportunity on the road for the 37-year-old to torment a franchise he has dominated like few other players.

Only Karl Malone has scored more points against Minnesota than Bryant’s 1,502 and counting. Only Ray Allen has hit more threes. Nobody has attempted more shots.

His record against the Wolves: 46-16.

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Wolves coach Sam Mitchell played against him for six years, a stretch in which Bryant’s Lakers went 17-5 against not-too-shabby Wolves teams.

“Just such a competitor,” Mitchell said of Bryant. “I tell people, the best individual workout I ever saw was Kobe Bryant in a gym by himself for an hour.”

Mitchell also coached the Toronto Raptors squad that gave up a career-high 81 points to Bryant in 2006. Asked about the game Tuesday, he smiled and slipped away from reporters.

“I coach for the Timberwolves now,” he said.

In spite of his not-infrequent thrashings at Bryant’s hands, “our game is going to miss him,” Mitchell said. “He plays the game the right way. He plays hard. He never cheats the game. He never takes shortcuts.”

Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t even a year old when Bryant made his NBA debut - and quipped that he doesn’t remember much of it. But he said he’s glad for the chance to play against him during Bryant’s final lap.

“It’s one of those electrifying players you got to watch growing up,” he said.

LaVine was just a year old himself when Bryant broke into the league, and he remembers the odd feeling of sharing the court with a childhood idol in the 14th game of his rookie season last November.

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It wound up being a classic duel: Bryant had 26 points, but LaVine scored 28 off the bench to lead the Wolves to a one-point victory.

LaVine knew he was doing something right because Bryant was guarding him down the stretch.

Afterward, “he said, ‘good stuff, young fella, and patted me on the butt,’ “ LaVine said -- not much, but enough to give the youngster a thrill.

“It’s Kobe, man,” he said. “It’s like, damn.”

The kids aren’t the only ones who know that feeling. Tayshaun Prince is just two years younger than Bryant, and his Detroit Pistons beat Bryant’s Lakers soundly in the 2004 NBA Finals.

But as a high school junior in Compton, Calif., “I’m watching this guy in a Lakers uniform and looking up to him.”

Close in age as they were, “he was where I wanted to be,” Prince said.

Now that cohort is on his way out the door. In his retirement announcement, Bryant said he was ready to let go.

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As someone contemplating the final stretch of his own career, Prince knows it’s seldom so easy.

“Guys who retire and tell you, ‘man I had a great run but this is it,’ we don’t want it to be it,” he said. “If they’re telling you that, they’re lying. You want it to last forever. You know it don’t last forever, but you want it to.”

Related Topics: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
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