Kobe's Unforgettable Finale a Perfectly Drawn Portrait of a Unique NBA Career

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterApril 14, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks towards the tunnel after scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — I came to say goodbye to a legend. Kobe Bryant refused.

It was too soon, by three weeks. And Kobe Bryant, as you might know, does everything on his own terms. Even goodbyes.

It was March 22, Game 70 of the Mamba Farewell Tour. The Lakers were playing the Grizzlies at Staples Center, the shimmering edifice where Bryant raised five banners.

I covered the first three of those championships, and seven seasons in all, as the Lakers beat writer for the L.A. Daily News. I live in New York now, but I was back in town for a day; I decided to take the opportunity to say thanks, and goodbye, to the most compelling and complex athlete I've known.

I had no plans to return for Kobe's finale. Flying cross-country for one game seemed impractical.

That's what I tried to tell him, anyway.

"What?!" Kobe bellowed, glaring and smiling simultaneously. "You can't be here at 17 and not be here for f--kin' 37, man!"

Seventeen being Kobe's age when he turned pro. Thirty-seven being his age now.

"Come on, man!" he scolded, chuckling. "Finish the journey, man!"

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks to the crowd after the game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

You don't argue with legends. You don't brush off Kobe Bryant.

So here I was Wednesday night, back at Staples Center once more, along with 19,000 fans and 450 media members, to watch Kobe Bean Bryant suit up one last time. To marinate in the memories. To pay tribute to one of the greatest ever to play the game. To say goodbye.

I came to finish the journey. Who knew the final steps would be so, well, surreal?

Sixty points? Sixty freaking points? It's approaching 1 a.m. PT, and I am still processing what I just saw. We all are. The press room is in a collective, giddy daze, and I suspect much of the greater Los Angeles region is, too.

You knew Kobe, one of the greatest scorers of all time, would go out shooting. Of course he would. But 50 shots? Sixty points? Even Kobe seemed stunned at how the night unfolded.

"I can't believe this actually happened, to be honest with you," he said. "This is kind of crazy to me. It's hard to believe that it happened this way. It really is. Like, I'm still in shock about it."

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Scoring 60 points takes an extraordinary effort, even for a player in his prime. Kobe's prime ended at least three years ago.

No player had reached 60 this season. Not Stephen Curry, not Kevin Durant, not Russell Westbrook, not Anthony Davis (he did hit 59, on Feb. 21).

The mark had been reached just 31 times since 1963, per Basketball-Reference.com. Just eight times in the last 11 seasons. And Kobe had five of those.

The oldest player to reach 60 until now was Wilt Chamberlain, who had a 66-point game in 1969, at age 32. Kobe is 37.

That it took him 50 shots (a career high) to get there seemed both comical and immaterial. This was not a night for modern efficiency stats, or for debating shot selection.

If Kobe Bryant wanted to go out gunning, who was going to argue?

"My teammates were just continuing to encourage me, continuing to say, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot,'" Bryant said, chuckling at the irony. "It's like reversed. You go from being the villain to now being some type of a hero, and then go from everybody saying 'Pass the ball' to 'Shoot the ball.' It's really strange."

Surreal, every part of it.

The 21 three-point attempts (six makes).

The 23 points in the fourth quarter.

The jumper that put the Lakers ahead for good.

The bullet pass, seconds later, to a streaking Jordan Clarkson for a breakaway dunk, and the game's final points.

Yes, Kobe Bryant, the unapologetic gunner, closed his career with an assist.

But then, Kobe has always been a bundle of contradictions.

Kobe was six years younger than Shaquille O'Neal—his co-star and co-combatantbut emerged as the more mature of the two during their frequent feuds, gritting his teeth while Shaq took public swipes at him.

Kobe has been caricatured as a mindless gunner, yet he averaged at least five assists a game in half of his 20 seasons. He has 86 games with 10 or more assists. He won multiple playoff games with key assists to Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox.

He was a phenomenal passerwhen the mood struck. I'm convinced he could have averaged eight assists in a season, rather effortlessly, if he chose to.

But Kobe preferred the hard way: He needed to shoot that impossible fadeaway, to split that converging double-team, to nail that shot with a palm in his face, to make his opponents feel the despair.

In those early years, Kobe was branded a loner by his older teammates, aloof and disengaged socially. The age gap was surely part of it.

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES:  Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers (L) and teammate Shaquille O'Neal sit on the bench during game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Semifinal Series 16 May 2000 against the Phoenix Suns in Los Angeles. The Lakers went on to w
Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Yet he could be surprisingly engaging and open, and even self-effacing.

There was the day that Kobe's sisters visited a Lakers practice at L.A. Southwest College, and Kobe happily introduced them to me.

Another day, one of his high school coaches visited. Kobe wryly introduced him as "the guy who taught me not to pass."

In those early years, what was most refreshing about Bryant was that there seemed to be no artifice at all. No flashy clothes or jewelry, no tattoos, no entourage, no reptilian nickname. On the court, he was cocksure, single-minded and ambitious. Off the court, he just seemed like a kid who really loved basketball—and knew he was really good at it.

On a rare practice day at the old Forum, in 1999, I found Bryant sitting at his locker, watching a golf tournament on television.

"Howard, do you golf?" he asked. No, I said. Do you? "No," Bryant said. "No. I could never play anything that I couldn't master."

And you can master basketball, I asked?

"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."

Coming from anyone else, that would sound profoundly audacious. Coming from Kobe, it just sounded like confidence.

I met Kobe Bryant in 1997, my first year on the beat, his second as a Laker. His head was clean-shaven, like his idol Michael Jordan, whose mannerisms he'd also adopted.

INGLEWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 5: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers on February 5, 1997 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

At the time, every flashy, power-dunking guard was carelessly tagged as "the next Jordan." Kobe hated the comparisons, but he fully embraced the challenge and all the expectations that came with it. He would become the closest Jordan approximation the league has seen.

Kobe was just a skinny reserve then, stuck (impatiently, of course) behind Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel in the guard rotation. He wouldn't crack the starting lineup until his third season.

My first Kobe story centered on his pituitary gland—at age 19, he was, in fact, still growing.

The perfectionist streak and fierce work ethic were evident from the start. Rick Fox, a Kobe teammate from 1997 to 2004, would later tell me that Bryant had a list of very specific career goals. I never learned the contents, but I suspect he checked off nearly every item (minus the sixth title that would have tied Jordan).

Over the years, I've seen Bryant get married, become a father, seize his place as the best player in the league, change his jersey (from No. 8 to 24) and recast himself as a cartoonish villain—"the Black Mamba."

There were times when I wondered if Kobe had lost his way, lost his humanity even, as he torched relationships and verbally obliterated teammates. He could be incredibly kind, and disturbingly hardhearted. That perfectionist drive, the quest for greatness, seemed to trump everything, leaving little room for personal connections.

I never really knew the Black Mamba. That persona came later, after the messy breakup with Shaq in 2004, after the sexual assault charge in Colorado, after the Lakers had slipped in the standings and the pressure to revive them, to lead them, had fallen squarely on Kobe's shoulders.

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 21:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on October 21, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

A new Kobe emerged—sneering through gritted teeth, locked jaw tight, chin jutting. The passion turned to ferocity. He embraced the villain's role, embraced a darker image, turned ever edgier and drove the Lakers to two more titles with an unbridled fury.

Universally revered early in his career, Kobe became the NBA's most polarizing player in the latter half. And he relished it.

On the morning of Kobe's final game, Nike released a commercial featuring a legion of booing, taunting fans from various locales. Kobe plays conductor and turns the enmity into a chorus. He's smiling slyly.

It was a perfect summation of his psyche. Kobe needed the hate.

"That's what I fed off of," he said late Wednesday. "I think at that time, to be embraced would have been like kryptonite for me. Because the darkness, those dark emotions are what I used to drive me—that isolation. That's what I grew up comfortable with.

"So I would refuse to allow anything else but that," he said. "Even saying things that would create some type of animosity, to just continue to use that as fuel to propel me forward. It was extremely, extremely necessary. If you wanted to beat me, all you had to do was embrace me at that time, and I would have been done."

He laughed heartily, and the room laughed with him.

It's been like this all season: Kobe Bryant laughing, joking, smiling, accepting hugs and well wishes from rivals, entertaining the media with his candor, opening up and letting everyone in.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  NBA Legend, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers hug after the game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"This is the Kobe he wanted to be," his former teammate Robert Horry told me.

Cynics saw it all as a ruse, a late-stage image-buffing before he exited the stage for good. I saw something else: a re-emergence of the bright, vibrant 19-year-old I met in 1997. It was as if the Lakers' competitive decline, and his imminent retirement, had freed Kobe to be himself again, to lose the Mamba mask and reclaim his humanity in public.

In the end, there was nothing left to sneer about, no rivals to slay or rings to chase. Just a happy legend, embracing the finality of it all.

The contrast confused people, but Bryant said it was very simple.

"We're all both—we all have a little hero and villain inside of us, man," Bryant said. "And it's just depending on perspective."

You never really know the people you cover as well as you'd like to believe, but I always knew this about Kobe: He disdained sentimentality. He had no room for it.

Back in the 2004 Finals, with his free agency looming, and the Lakers heading to Detroit for what would prove to be their final games of the season, I asked: Have you considered you might have played your last home game as a Laker?

It wasn't a crazy question—Bryant had, behind closed doors, been noisily threatening to leave.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers signs the court after the game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

But he dismissed the premise, and as he turned to leave the press conference, said in a mocking tone, "Howard, you're so sentimental."

That was Year 8 of Kobe's career. In Year 20, he's hugging every All-Star, rival and role player, every coach, usher and locker room attendant, soaking in the adulation and the nostalgia. And urging former beat writers to come see him off.

In 19 seasons on the NBA beat, I've never met a more focused, more dedicated, more passionate individual than Kobe Bean Bryant. And I could not have imagined a more perfectly imperfect farewell than the one he orchestrated here Wednesday night. It was unreal, messy, exhilarating, memorable.

I finished the journey. It was worth it.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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