NEW YORK — The farewell came Sunday at 5:59 p.m ET, with hugs and smiles, a stirring ovation and one final wave—an NBA legend and a legendary arena sharing a last embrace.
Kobe Bryant raised his left palm to meet the gentle cheers, then disappeared into a Madison Square Garden tunnel.
This was almost certainly goodbye, even if Bryant, at age 37 and in his 20th year of professional basketball, isn't quite ready to say so. This was almost certainly the last chapter in a most unique basketball romance.
Kobe Bryant never played for New York, but New York has long adored Kobe Bryant—cheered him, embraced him like a favored son, even as he diced up New York's team and stamped his name in New York's record books.
Knicks fans could boo the Los Angeles Lakers and cheer for the Lakers' star in the same breath, contradictions be damned. Bryant always returned the love, always proclaimed his adoration for the place he called "the Mecca of basketball."
So it was again Sunday, with the Lakers making their only visit of the season, and the Knicks pulling out a 99-95 victory in front of an audience that included Magic Johnson, Tracy Morgan and Spike Lee.
There will be more road games in the weeks and months ahead, more farewells along the way, more moments of sentiment and admiration. But none like this.
To understand the intensity of the goodbye, you have to understand the hello. You have to see The Reverse Dunk.
Kobe Bryant knows the exact moment his New York love affair began, when he realized his relationship with the Garden would be different from any other.
"2003," he said. "That was it."
Specifically, Feb. 6, 2003. More specifically, the 1:09 mark of the second quarter.
"The reverse dunk," said Mark Madsen, the former Lakers forward.
Commentators will often cite Bryant's record-setting 61-point game in 2009 as his signature Garden performance, the moment that consummated his bond with the Mecca. He was cheered that night like a conquering hero, leaving to a standing ovation.
Others will cite Bryant's All-Star debut in 1998, at age 19, when he took the Garden stage, went toe to toe with Michael Jordan, waved off Karl Malone's screen and put the basketball universe on notice.
But no, it was 2003, in Bryant's seventh season, with three championship rings in his sock drawer and his preeminence established. That's when Jordan's heir joined Jordan among the handful of foes to be honored with the Garden's unmitigated adulation.
The YouTube video is grainy, as if it were imported from 8mm film—the Zapruder of Kobe highlight reels. It is clearly of another era—pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-Vine. Bryant's hairline is intact, and his jersey bears a block-shadowed "8."
The Lakers hold a 50-41 lead as Bryant sizes up Latrell Sprewell on the right side of the lane, just inside the three-point arc. They jostle for a moment, and then suddenly Bryant is blowing past Sprewell, driving the baseline, bolting toward the basket.
Bryant leaps just inside the restricted area, rising for what appears to be—what everyone in the arena is expecting to be—a simple reverse layup. At the last possible microsecond of a microsecond, at the apex of his rise, Bryant twists, rotates his right arm and tomahawks the ball through the rim.
The TNT announcers go nuts. The crowd explodes in amazement.
"It was almost like the air being let out of a balloon on one hand for the Knicks fans," Madsen recalled, "but then also just the expression of, 'Oh my gosh, we just witnessed something great.'"
Moments later, the dunk was replayed on the Garden scoreboard, and the crowd exploded all over again.
YouTube does not properly capture how impossible or unexpected it all was. You had to be there.
I was a Lakers beat writer then, covering the game from a baseline media table, maybe eight feet from the lane. From Bryant's leap and his trajectory, I anticipated a layup. He had taken off too soon, with too little explosion, for anything more spectacular.
This is what I remember thinking then, what I still see in my head now: It was as if, in midair, Bryant stepped on an invisible stool and launched himself another six inches.
Derek Fisher—then Bryant's teammate, now the Knicks' coach—literally shuddered as he recalled the play Sunday afternoon.
"That was one of the few times over the course of my career where it's like, you're in the game and your reaction to something is like"—and here Fisher shakes shoulders and arms, his eyes wide—"like you don't believe what just happened."
Like you couldn't see it coming.
"That's what makes those plays really great," Fisher said. "Because you don't see it coming. And all of a sudden it turns into that. It was pretty special."
In the stands, 19,000 Knicks fans screamed and swooned—love at first dunk.
Bryant finished with 46 points that day, received a standing ovation and welcomed several thousand new admirers.
"You can feel the appreciation for it," Bryant told Bleacher Report. "The next morning I went to a diner and had breakfast, and there was an old lady there, probably like 85 years old, and she just said, 'That was a helluva performance last night.' I was like, aw, this is pretty cool."
Truth be told, Bryant has always preferred to play the villain—the Black Mamba, destroyer of hopes and dreams. And he has done his share of destroying, from Sacramento to Portland to San Antonio to Indiana. He relishes the boos and taunts, the pleasure of silencing a hostile crowd.
It's why, he said, he does not want a formal farewell tour—no sappy video tributes or rocking chairs or kitschy mementos.
It is perhaps part of the reason Bryant refuses to rule out a 21st season: That vague possibility helps keep the nostalgia at bay, ensuring that Bryant will not have to endure nightly lovefests from the crowds he spent so much time tormenting.
"I'd rather enjoy the hostility," he said.
Yet Bryant will also admit to moments of reminiscence as he makes his way through the league once more, a chance to appreciate what has been, the road traveled.
"Is it a little different this time around?" Bryant said. "Yeah, yeah."
No, Bryant will not say this is it. But he did hire a film crew to track him all season, filming every move and collecting sound bites in quiet moments. No documentary is planned, Bryant told me. But don't be surprised if we see one if this truly is the end.
How will he know when it's time?
"That's always the question, isn't it?" he said, with a chuckle. "You don't know. You don't know. I mean, everybody's standard answer is 'When you know, you know.' That's what everybody says. It's not very helpful. But that's what everybody says. So we'll see if I'm giving the same answer or not."
Over two decades and 644 road games, Bryant has put a stamp on every NBA arena, and a few that no longer exist. His five championship runs took him through five different cities: Indianapolis, Philadelphia, East Rutherford, Orlando, Boston. He has won playoff series in every time zone.
Yet New York has consistently brought out his best: 30-point games, 40-point games and ultimately the 61-point game, which broke Jordan's record for the most ever scored by a Knicks opponent at the current Garden.
In 16 games at MSG, Bryant has averaged 29.9 points, per StatMuse—his highest of any arena—and that includes a one-point game in Bryant's rookie season (he played three minutes).
It is not a coincidence.
"No question," Bryant said. "I won't even try to deny it. I mean, absolutely it has everything to do with it. One hundred percent."
As Bryant likes to say, the Garden is "the last one," the only NBA building that predates the modern era, the only place left where Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson and Willis Reed once roamed, "where all the history took place."
A month before he was drafted in 1996, a 17-year-old Bryant took the train from his home in Philadelphia into Penn Station, to see the Knicks and Chicago Bulls play in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"Just kind of being a fan, and walking up and going up into the arena and sitting down and just kind of taking it all in," he said. "Those memories are always there, man."
One more show. One more memory. That's all anyone wanted Sunday afternoon at the Garden. The fans. The Lakers. Heck, probably even the Knicks.
There was little expectation, given Bryant's current physical state, at age 37, with 19 seasons behind him, with 55,000 minutes logged (regular season and playoffs), and having endured three serious injuries in the last two-and-a-half years. But you knew he would try.
"I'm not ready to bury him," Spike Lee told Bleacher Report, 30 minutes before tipoff. He added, with a laugh, "I'll say this: He's not scoring 61 today!"
For four quarters, Bryant dueled Carmelo Anthony, his longtime friend, in a battle of aging gunners. There was a lot of bumping and harassing, chirping and chuckling and naturally a lot of shots—19 by Bryant (who made six) and 20 by Anthony (who made eight).
Early in the game, the loudest cheers came when Bryant touched the ball, and built to a crescendo as soon as it appeared he might shoot it. The results were an afterthought. Whatever Kobe Bryant could produce on this fall day in 2015, Knicks fans would embrace him and support him, as they had for years.
"New Yorkers know basketball," Lee said. "And you know we appreciate game. So if somebody is great, they're great, even if they're on the other team. Same thing happened with Michael."
All around Bryant, there were reminders of how much time has passed. Fisher, who came into the league with Bryant in 1996, is now the Knicks' head coach, his bushy beard flecked with gray patches ("Gandalf," Bryant joked). Madsen is now a Lakers assistant coach. Ron Harper, one of Bryant's first mentors, attended the game with Phil Jackson, Bryant's most trusted mentor, now the Knicks' president.
It was ugly at times, with Bryant forcing long three-pointers, shooting air balls and consistently striking the front of the rim. There is little lift in those old legs right now, and there might not be ever again.
Drives to the basket are rare, and they end in layups, not thunderous slams. Someone stole that invisible stool.
Yet as Bryant stepped to the foul line late in the game, he was saluted with a familiar chorus: "M! V! P!"
When the final buzzer sounded, Bryant and Anthony shared a long hug. More warm moments followed: Kobe and Sasha Vujacic, a former teammate; Kobe and Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks' bright rookie; Kobe and Tracy Morgan on the far sideline; and finally, Kobe giving a hug and kiss to his wife and daughters, across from the Knicks' bench.
When there was no one left to hug or pat or kiss, Bryant pivoted and began his walk back across the court, triggering one last roar through the stands.
"KO-BEEEEE!!!!" a fan shouted from the upper deck.
Kobe Bryant smiled, raised his hand in acknowledgment, dipped his head and disappeared.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.