In a dramatic and theatrical farewell to the city of L.A., Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points in the final game of his luxurious career. It was the greatest single performance by a retiring athlete in his final game. For a 37 year old with a creaky and aching body, it was a magical last moment that will be talked about for a long time, both in this city and in NBA circles, as careers of legendary players come to an end.
The template Kobe created for how to leave your career with an extraordinary willful exclamation point to end the sentence will be very difficult to match. But in a way, it made perfect sense for it to end with Kobe’s shout out to the career he used to have. As he did so many times in his basketball life, Kobe wrestled victory from the depths of defeat. He had the audacious will to push through exhaustion and it has been the Kobe Bryant archetype for the entire 20 years he has been a Laker to keep grinding and fighting and to never give in. Still at 37 years old and half-way broken, he exceeded all expectations as he single-handedly made sure he’d walk off a glorious winner in front of a standing room only crowd.
He wasn’t the sadist Kobe on Wednesday night. And he wasn’t the villain Kobe. He was human Kobe and an aging player Kobe fighting through the crumbs of his late career. And he was gifted Kobe and ruthless Kobe, all the way to the end. He admitted he didn’t feel his legs at the end and the three pointer that cut a double digit Jazz lead to one was all arms. That too was Kobe-esque. Delivering through pain, digging deep for glory.
Think about this. His last 60 point game was in 2009. He was 30 years old. Whoever said Kobe Bryant would perform the ordinary the last time we would see him?
A game so perfectly scripted for the hero to take center stage and give his admirers one last moment caught everyone off guard, not because it wasn’t possible, but it just wasn’t very realistic considering the path through injury hell Kobe has traveled. Multiple times before this Wednesday night, the Bryant that cut a trail through NBA cites on his retirement tour was an old Kobe or a mediocre Kobe or a he’s having a great night for once Kobe. Consistency was far and few between and everyone understood if his body decided to quit on him at the midnight hour. One last miracle seemed out of the realm of probablility.
The league has never seen a guard play 20 years and so Kobe was a pioneer, not just in his high school to the pros saga, but in how his career was about the dramatic, the unthinkable, the spellbinding and the heroic. How to explain a player besieged by injuries and time and fatigue and pain for three years in a row, and then coming out in game 66 of his very last season, exhausted through much of the second half and willing his body to do the miraculous gut wrenching job of carrying him across the finish line.
Kobe’s extraordinary talent has always been his ability to rise above circumstance and deliver, even as he fought off his own physical torture. So when he outscored the entire Utah Jazz team in the fourth quarter, when he scored 15 points in three minutes, when he pushed back the shoulder pain and the knee pain and the ankle pain, when he couldn’t gasp breath without bending over and grasping his knees, when his face was distorted because what he was doing was damned hard, the legend Kobe, the champion Kobe, the 81 point game Kobe, the Kobe that beat the Celtics in game 7 because he had 15 rebounds, that Kobe was suddenly resurrected one last beautiful time.
Trevor Booker of the Utah Jazz dunked the ball with 3:46 left in the 4th quarter. It gave the Jazz a 9 point lead. It wasn’t a surprise what was going to happen in the last 200 seconds of Kobe Bryant’s career. He was going to get the ball. Everyone knew that. What they didn’t know or expect was how the ball, the net, and Kobe entered into a negotiation. Kobe, broken body and all, wrote the greatest story of his late career as he put himself back together, mastering the moment. He carried his team while a horde of Lakers fans watched in stunned belief and ecstasy.
15 points. 5-5 shooting. Three minutes of heroism. Drop the mic.
Kobe reverse layup. 47 points. Kobe free throws. 49 points. Kobe layup. 51 points. Kobe pull-up. 53 points. Kobe three pointer. 56 points. Kobe fadeaway. 58 points and the Lakers lead by one. Free throws to ice it and 60 points in an historic goodbye game. The Lakers win by 3.
It was one of those moments you had to see to believe and NBA players nearly broke Twitter as they watched shot after shot after shot go in of Kobe’s 42 minutes. He played more minutes last night than any other NBA player. As an encore presentation for the width and breath of his dominant career, it was as close to magical as you’re ever going to witness for a 20 year NBA lifer with legs and knees that creak and and a shoulder held together with tape.
This is like watching a movie- Jamal Crawford
Please get 50 Kobe- Zach Lavine
This dude is not real at 37 years old- DeAndre Jordan
I hope Kobe has a Derek Jeter walk off moment here- Kevin Love
UNBELIEVABLE MAN!!!- LeBron James
That’s my doggggg- Russell Westbrook
Afterwards, his old teammates joined him on the court for hugs and whispers and laughs and a did you see what I just did. Some were bald and a little bit overweight and a few were gray and all were transported back to that magical time when Kobe performed just like Wednesday night. There was Gary Payton. Lamar Odom. Brian Shaw. Robert Horry. Derek Fisher. Rick Fox. Devean George. Chris Mihm. DJ Mbenga. Elden Campbell. Ronny Turiaf. Horace Grant. Adam Morrison. Kareem Rush. Rick Fox. Brian Cook, to name a few.
Kobe and Shaq had several moments of hilarity during the game and afterwards embraced when Kobe tied the ribbon on the sixth 60 point game of his career. Only Wilt had more 60 point games. Shaq predicted a big game and challenged Kobe to get 50. Afterwards he told Rachel Nicholls, “that motherf*#%er did it.” His other former teammates who knew how Kobe fed off the idea of making the impossible possible one last time shook their head, but as Gary Payton said afterwards, “we know Kobe. We’ve been in the locker room with him.” Translation: he is theater when it matters most, a showman in a show town. It has pushed the Kobe mythology into a realm most NBA players never, ever cross in their professional lifetime and it was the guiding emotion behind the thousands without tickets surrounding the arena before and after the game.
Perhaps it was his doing or perhaps it was just where his talent led him. He always set himself apart from his peers, from Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He had this great understanding of product and advertising and marking time. The end was never the end until he said it was, until he made it the end.
The end was Wednesday, a glorious, exhilarating, unbelievable performance that illustrated what a great competitor, scorer, clutch shot maker Kobe Bryant really is. Still, goodbye is hard even when it’s perfect. On a crazy Wednesday L.A. night, the last performance of Kobe Bryant was exceptionally perfect.
And so here we are after year 20. Kobe is gone. He left his NBA life behind after a story book ending he couldn’t have dreamed up. He didn’t fall on his sword like some predicted. He didn’t muddle his way through. He ended his career like he started it. He made the Staples crowd giddy and spastic and emotionally overcome. His last act was to sign the #24 and the #8 on opposite sides of the court and to take a family picture to remember this journey. 17 years old and 37 years old and so much in between. 33,000 points. 20 seasons. 5 titles. 2 gold medals.
To the reporters who lingered, the ones who had covered him all these years, he doled out hugs like he had doled out points an hour earlier. It was hard to go and everyone understood the finality. It was hard to walk out the door and away from the only adult life he’d ever known. This was it. The end of a 20 year career. The end of beauty and pain and love and mercy. Goodbye to the city he first met when he was 17.
It was a blur to him, this final last act of his unparalleled career. The crowd trembling. The city celebrating. The victory lingering. Kobe Bryant, the man, the athlete, the icon, the scorer was who he had always been from the very beginning, since he launched those air balls in the last game of his rookie season, when the Lakers lost and Utah won. In a reversal of fortune, in this last game of his 20th season, the Lakers won and Utah lost. If he was going to go out, it was going to have to be like this. Determined. Magical. Transcendent.
Kobe being Kobe. One last time.