Kobe Bryant Puts Exclamation Point on Career with Surreal, Epic Finale

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2016

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant smiles during the first half of Bryant's last NBA basketball game, against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The last game of Kobe Bryant’s career—arguably the most lionized in NBA history—began like just about every other game this season: with the Los Angeles Lakers stuck at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, handicapped by a flimsy screen-door defense and a predictable offensive attack. 

But for one unforgettable, mind-boggling night, Bryant washed a season’s worth of negativity under a rug. The final points of his illustrious career were two game-sealing free throws to give himself 60 points (on a career-high 50 shots) and the Lakers a 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz. It was all a fever dream, 48 minutes of unprecedented glory in front of a hyperventilating Staples Center crowd that didn't know what to do with itself.

None of it made sense, and none of it had to.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The festivities got off to a slow start. After missing his first five shots, Bryant drove left, pump-faked his defender into the air and launched a crescent-moon floater that nearly kissed the shot clock before falling through the rim. His next four shots were picture perfect, each bolder than the last. On a dime, the night morphed into the final scene of Bryant’s real life biopic.  

"I had a little bit of nerves," he said afterward. "Once the game got going a little bit, I was able to settle down."

Late in the first quarter, Bryant drew a three-shot foul on Jazz guard Rodney Hood. He played the entire first quarter and finished the half with 22 points on 20 shots. (Every other Laker had 21 attempts combined in that time.)

It was a vintage, uncompromising Mamba reminding his audience why they fell in love with him in the first place. In his last game, Bryant was the best player on the floor and flawless down the stretch. He hit shot after shot after shot in the fourth quarter, and to his adoring fans, it was beautiful.

"He was exhausted with seven minutes left in the game," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said. "I knew it, he knew it. But somehow, just his sheer will, his sheer determination, just the guts that he has kind of put everybody on his back and carried the game and took it over. It’s just amazing to me."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

One hour before the opening tip, Staples Center felt like a high school graduation blended with a prize fight inside the most exclusive church on the planet. 

The celebration kicked off with Kobe saluting the crowd at midcourt after two commemorative videos—the second including words from Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom, Gregg Popovich and Jack Nicholson—and a special introduction from Magic Johnson.

Before lineups were introduced, a third tribute video played on the Jumbotron, featuring special words from Scott and his current Lakers teammates. More videos looped throughout the night. From Ice Cube and Kanye West to Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift to James Harden and Lamar Odom, dozens of celebrities, teammates and legends showed their gratitude. 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Bryant’s finale felt like a circus at the zoo, as the Lakers promised, but that’s no surprise to anyone who’s watched the entire season. Up until the end, Bryant was the offensive focal point of L.A.’s offense, a nonsensical strategy considering his age and declining skill. 

Heading into their last game of the year, the Lakers were outscored by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with Bryant on the floor (the second-worst net rating of any player who appeared in at least 60 games, per NBA.com). Bryant finished his career with a 31.9 usage percentage, fourth-highest in NBA history. (His usage percentage for the season was 31.6, sixth-highest in the league.) 

But this was not the time for harsh realities. The “M-V-P” chants that echoed throughout the arena whenever Bryant stood at the free-throw line didn’t even sound ridiculous. The Lakers sacrificed an entire season to appease the greatest player in their franchise’s history. Whether you agree with that thought process or not, it all seems worthwhile for reasons that can't be verbalized. 

"I can't believe this is happening. This is crazy to me. It's crazy to me. It's crazy. There's no way I can possibly have imagined this to happen," a champagne-soaked Bryant said after the game. "I'm just deeply honored by the fans, to be able to put on that type of show for them after all the support they've given me. We grew up together. The fans that have been coming here from day one, so to give them this type of show on the last one, is everything."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

At his pregame press conference, a relieved-looking Scott smiled his way through questions about the night, a game he and Bryant spent the entire year looking forward to. 

“Once the game starts, the objective is still the same: You want to win,” Scott said. “But I’ll also be very mindful of No. 24 out there, how he’s feeling, how he’s playing…try to get him as many shots as I think he can handle, as well. There’s obviously going to be a focus on him. This is his night and I want him to enjoy it as much as possible.”

Over the past 20 years, millions have watched Bryant grow from a boundless prodigy into a rigid icon—and eventually a humbled legend preparing to make his exit. If anything is clear from his finale Wednesday, it's that his final moments as an NBA player won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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