Kobe Bryant's Last Game, from the Players, Reporters and Coaches Who Were There

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeApril 13, 2017

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant image is displayed to the crowd during a ceremony before Bryant's last during the first half of an NBA basketball game, against the Utah Jazz, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"Mamba out."

As last lines go, this falls somewhere between "Rosebud" and whatever the last line of Ghost in the Shell was. Like Kobe Bryant's trademark playing style, it seemed to be both totally extemporaneous and meticulously planned.

Everything about Kobe's last season felt like it was being stage-managed by a director just slightly out of sight, but nothing was more reminiscent of a movie than his final game, which celebrates its first anniversary Thursday.

Only one year removed from Kobe's finale, it already can lay claim to the honor of being the most monumental, historically relevant late-season throwaway game in NBA history.

LakersNation.com reporter Serena Winters followed the team throughout that season and witnessed the strange combination of celebration and agony up close. "It was odd because the Lakers were so terrible. So, you're watching all of these meaningless games, but Kobe is putting meaning into them," she said. "When Kobe's on the floor, it meant something."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

On April 13, 2016, the area around Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex was buzzing for hours before anyone took the court. It was a Dodgers Opening Day, a Rams tailgate and Disneyland all rolled into one oversized package. People just wanted to be there, even if they didn't have a ticket.

"The morning of the game, you could already feel it," former Bryant teammate and current Lakers associate coach Brian Shaw said. The front office invited him to watch in the stands, along with fellow ex-Lakers like Gary Payton and Horace Grant. "There was a line of people down the street and around the corner, waiting for the store to open up so they could buy all the Kobe gear," Shaw said.

"It was almost like an atmosphere of a Game 7 of the Finals."

The Lakers' team store was completely overrun with merchandise bearing the name and likeness of Kobe Bryant, so if you wanted, say, a Tarik Black T-shirt, you would have to come back the next day. Or the day after that.

Rows and rows of shelf space were crowded with leather hats that retailed for over $100 and jerseys that fetched close to $500. By the end of the night, those same shelves were bare. All I could scrounge up was a pair of Kobe Bryant socks that I'm still too afraid to wear for fear of ripping my only keepsake of the evening.

While fans were devouring all the memorabilia they could afford without taking out another mortgage on their house, Bryant and the Lakers were prepping for the Utah Jazz. According to Lakers forward Julius Randle, Kobe treated the day like any other.

Among the team, no one imagined he'd reach such lofty scoring heights as he would later that night. "I didn't think 60 [points]," Randle said. "I had a bet with him before the game that he'd get at least 40 shots. He took 50 or something like that."

The Jazz went into the game hoping to secure the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference, meaning they cared little for the spectacle of the Mamba's NBA exit.

"We didn't have the plan of letting him score 60 points or anything like that," Jazz guard Joe Ingles said. "At the time, we were pissed. We wanted to win the game. To go out like that, it's like 'What are we doing? This is stupid.'"

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Although those in attendance and fans watching at home already knew the Houston Rockets had secured the eighth playoff seed before tipoff, Jazz players didn't learn they'd been eliminated until halftime. The Jazz had to play another half of basketball, but now, instead of fighting to extend their season, they'd merely be the antagonist in someone else's story.

"You're carrying that disappointment," Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen said. "Now you've gotta go be a part of that show."

The blow of missing out on the postseason faded once it became clear that history was about to be made. Kobe struggled early, missing his first five shots of the contest, an inauspicious way to go into such a big game. But those who know him never had a doubt he'd put it together.

"Once one goes in, we know he's not gonna stop shooting," Shaw recalls telling Grant and Payton in the stands. He certainly didn't stop, racking up 10 more shots than the 40 Randle had predicted. Even after the initial flurry of offense, expectations in the arena remained reasonable.

"When he got 20, I thought, 'Oh, he might get 35 tonight.' But then it kept going up and up," longtime Laker Metta World Peace said.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 and Metta World Peace #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers sit on the bench during the game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Besides the gaudy point total for Kobe, what people seem to remember most from that game was the noise. If the atmosphere was like a Game 7 before tipoff, it was just as loud, if not louder, during the game.

"I'd compare it to a World Cup, where you're all in the room cheering for like, the U.S., so you're all in it for one cause," Winters said. "To have every single person in that arena there for one purpose only. Every single person in that arena is cheering for Kobe."

It wasn't until Kobe hit 40 points around the third quarter that people started asking the question of how far he could go. To that point, I divided my time in the press area high above the court between watching the game unfold in front of me and checking in on the Warriors' pursuit of 73 wins. Only the fickle basketball gods would be so cruel as to put those two games on at the same time.

Once Kobe cracked 40, though, it was time to put the Warriors game away.

There was no way you could avoid the 20,000 strong in Staples Center willing Bryant to another basket. And another. And another. "You felt the people who were outside," Winters recalled. "You felt the people watching through their TV screens."

Finally, 60—a point total Bryant had been intimately familiar with as a younger player but hadn't seen since 2009. For the latter stages of his career, the will was still alive, but his body refused to cooperate. On this final night, he was somehow able to be Kobe Bryant one more time.

When it was all over, he gave his speech, declared that he was definitely out and commenced celebrating a career well done. For a player who made a name for himself as an aloof, cerebral assassin on the court, Bryant looked positively giddy.

Until that moment, there'd never been a time when he could let go of the need to be the villain and accept a hero's welcome. He'd always been polarizing, from his first day in the league to his last second. In that arena, though, he could finally be the hero without reservation.

"To have everybody love you in that moment, you could tell that he felt it," Winters said. "It was like, 'Oh s--t, Kobe's human.'"

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

As was customary after a Lakers game that season, the opposing team broke implicit NBA protocol and lined up to greet Bryant, offer words of thanks and maybe get some sneakers signed. As Ingles remembers it, most of the Jazz got their shoes signed by Bryant, though not everyone waited until the last game.

Thanks to a friendship with Lakers guard Marcelo Huertas, Ingles was able to get a shoe to Kobe after a Lakers-Jazz game in Utah two weeks prior. "If you get a second with him, quickly get him," he told Huertas, who got the black Nikes in front of the Mamba without having to wait for an official audience.

On the subject of being the team that will be remembered as the one that lost in Kobe's last game, Ingles and the Jazz seem way more Zen about it a year later.

"Looking back now, make the playoffs or not, it is what it is, but to be a part of that, get your shoes signed by him after the game, have some conversations within our team about it, it was a really cool thing to be a part of," Ingles said.

That's what that game did for everyone who was there, from the players to the media to Lakers employees and fans. Everything else was secondary to making your memories of the night last forever.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"You look over and see J.A. Adande stand up and Bill Plaschke with his mouth wide-open, and then you're standing up because you just can't help it," Winters remembered about the two journalists who have covered the Lakers for years. "It was just one of the most amazing experiences."

In the locker room, Kobe would receive a champagne bath courtesy of World Peace, Brandon Bass and Lou Williams—the veteran core of a young Lakers team. At first, Kobe resisted being doused in a celebratory booze shower. After all, champagne is for championships, not for old guys retiring, but World Peace persisted until he got Bryant to give in.

"It's a legendary night, and he's getting champagne," he said. "It's over. We don't care what he says."

Winters, a Lakers fan who grew up in Southern California and interned with the team before she started her current job, got to ask the last question in Kobe's final press conference as an NBA player. She also got to do the unthinkable for most basketball journalists: She hugged Kobe Bryant.

As Winters was doing her final on-court video piece of the night, Bryant approached her from the other side of the arena floor, which he had just finished signing for a charity auction.

"I went to go put my hand out for a handshake, to be professional, because that's what I do. He looks at me with this face like, 'Are you kidding me? A handshake?' He goes 'Come here' and he gives me a hug. As a media member, I'm not going to go hug Kobe, but it tells you what a moment that is."

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