This story was originally published on April 14, 2016. Kobe Bryant’s final game will re-air on ESPN and the ESPN app Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET.
LOS ANGELES — The clock ticked toward midnight Wednesday. The sold-out stands had emptied hours earlier.
Now, ushers, security guards and cleaning crews swept mounds of purple and gold confetti, streamers and balloons into white trash bags. But Kobe Bryant remained on the court.
In a black Los Angeles Lakers hoodie, sweatpants and a pair of his sneakers, the 37-year-old gathered his family — his wife and two young daughters — on the Staples Center hardwood, and posed for pictures beside the team’s half-court logo.
As shutters snapped and flashes popped, Bryant smiled, lingering in the place where he had delivered the most perfect farewell, one so fitting and surreal that it too will linger in the vivid memories of those who watched it almost impossibly unfold.
In the final game of his storied 20-season career, Bryant scored 60 points and hit the winning shot with 31.6 seconds left. He scored 15 of the Lakers’ final 17 points. He outscored the opponent by himself (23-21) in the fourth quarter.
And, to round out the storybook ending, Bryant led the Lakers to a 101-96 victory against the Utah Jazz in his 1,346th and final regular-season game, punctuating a season-long farewell tour with a performance that even he couldn’t fathom.
“It’s hard to believe that it happened this way,” he said after notching the sixth game of 60-plus points in his career. “I’m still in shock about it.”
In October, Bryant’s first shot of the preseason in Hawaii hit the side of the backboard, foreshadowing a season of struggle.
The tribute videos, standing ovations and chants still poured in, even though Bryant kept misfiring, earning comparisons to Willie Mays with the New York Mets and Johnny Unitas with the San Diego Chargers, stars in their twilight who had become shells of their former selves.
Bryant’s 20th season ultimately amounted to a living wake, but unlike some aging icons, he never retreated from the spotlight. Instead, he remained the Lakers’ sole focus, especially as they clung to him for relevancy during their worst season in franchise history (17-65).
And he was never more the focus than Wednesday, starting with the fact that Bryant attempted a career-high 50 shots, his most since taking 47 in 2002.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became the first player since Rick Barry in February 1967 to attempt at least 50 shots in a game.
Bryant took 58.8 percent of his team’s 85 shots, the highest percentage of his team’s shots that he has ever taken in a game, even more than when he scored 81 points. In essence, Kobe’s final game was so Kobe. He has always been a gunner, firing away as much as he pleases, even excessively.
And he has had an ultra green light during this season, but never more so than in his finale, and he took full advantage. “My teammates were just continuing to encourage me, [telling me] ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot,'” Bryant said.
Bryant played as if he were trying to drain every shot from his basketball soul, satisfying fans who didn’t spend thousands to come see him pass anyway. He said his nerves affected him some, but to keep his emotions in check, he had planned to follow his typical game-day routine, busying himself by focusing on the matchup.
“It didn’t work out that way,” he said with a laugh. “There were so many people to talk to and items to be signed and pictures to be taken. I just gave myself up to that. I just said, this is fine, this is cool. Just let it go, let it ride. Just enjoy it. It was fun.”
Several times, Bryant’s sentiments nearly overtook him, such as when he put on his socks, shoes and jersey or ran out of the tunnel. “OK, you’ve got to block that out because none of that makes a difference whatsoever if you come out here and completely lay an egg,” he told himself. “So you have to concentrate and focus and then you can be nostalgic all you want later on tonight and tomorrow.”
In terms of his tomorrow, Bryant said he plans to work out, if only to avoid falling into bad habits. He’ll work out of his corporate office, where he is ferociously hell-bent on building Kobe Inc. into an empire that one day overshadows his mythical basketball legacy.
Many Lakers fans and others no doubt will want to see him play basketball again, somehow. They might catch a glimpse on social media, he says, but he affirmed that he’ll never play in the NBA again. His body simply can’t take any more.
The fact that he walked off the court Wednesday is almost as miraculous as his point total. After all, his past three seasons were cut short by injury, and even Bryant admitted there were times this season when his body failed him to the point where he worried he might not reach the finish line.
Such concerns arose after the Lakers played the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season, Bryant said. Despite all the physical therapy and treatment he received on a daily basis, his body still felt terrible, still ached and stiffened up.
He wondered then, “Maybe this is Father Time and this is just what happens. That was a very tough moment for me,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know if I could pull myself [together].”
He missed games to rest. He played limited minutes in others. Late this season, he was so heavily wrapped in heat packs on the bench that he looked mummified.
The ultimate goal: help him escape his last game unscathed so that he can walk off on his own.
“It’s surreal,” he said of leaving the court for the last time. “It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like you’re in a fog and everything is moving extremely slow yet extremely fast. You’re trying to look and take it all in. You’re trying to observe and you’re not quite sure where to look to just take it all in. Very difficult to do. But it’s like a dream.”
Bryant had told his young daughters that he used to put up big numbers like that quite often. “Really?” they asked him. “YouTube it,” he told them.
Wednesday didn’t mark the perfect ending, because, for him, perfect would’ve been a sixth championship. But the Lakers are stuck in the NBA’s basement, so all he could do was try to put on a show, which he did in glorious fashion, once more.
As he sat on the dais before a packed news conference, with 450-500 media credentialed for his final game, Bryant donned his jersey. It seemed like he didn’t want to take it off, to move on and leave his lifelong obsession behind, but he laughed at the notion. “I just figured, tonight I’d come in here early since I know you [media] have deadlines and stuff,” Bryant said. “It’s not like I have to ice. What takes a long time is I have to ice, I have to stretch, [receive physical therapy]. [But] what am I doing that for? The treadmill tomorrow? I figured I’d come in here a lot faster and get going.”
Then Bryant paused. He spoke about how his teammates sprayed him with champagne when he came into the locker room after the game. ‘”That’s only for championships,” he told them, “but all right.”
He could smell the champagne on his jersey, just as he could in past Junes when the Lakers were dominant. Then Bryant admitted it. He wasn’t ready to move on. “Taking it off is going to be very strange,” he said.
When he sank a 20-footer in the final minute to give the Lakers a 97-96 lead, the crowd erupted, delirious that Bryant gave them one more clutch shot. His final point came at the free throw line, just as his first point did in New York on Nov. 5, 1996.
Bryant played all but 4.1 seconds in his final frame, checking out to another ovation and more deafening roars. After hugging teammates and former teammates, a sweat-soaked and worn-down Bryant came to half court and addressed the crowd. “You know, I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by,” Bryant said. “This is crazy.”
After all that, Bryant told the fans how much he appreciated them remaining loyal through his career. He told them how much it meant to only play for the Lakers, a team he loved ever since childhood. “What can I say?” Bryant said with a huge smile. “Mamba out.”
Then, hours later, Mamba returned. On one side of the court, Bryant autographed the commemorative No. 8, signing, simply, “Kobe.” On the other side, he signed the commemorative No. 24 with “Laker for Life! Kobe 24.”
He took pictures, shook hands, hugged and said goodbye. Bryant received numerous farewell gifts throughout the year, but none topped what the Lakers gave him — an entire season to do with what he pleased.
To return the favor, Bryant’s poor play often helped his team lose, giving the Lakers a better shot at keeping their top-three protected first-round draft pick this summer. It marked the oddest irony of this season-long spectacle, this yellow brick road that stretched from October to April and ended on spring night in downtown Los Angeles, where Staples Center rocked as if good days were here again, where thousands of fans gathered outside as if a championship had been won.
At 12:20 a.m., with Wednesday faded into Thursday, the newest ex-Laker left the court, but not before he knelt down and slapped the Lakers’ logo, twice. He had given the team and this city scores of memories, as well as more than half his life, and now he had given everyone a farewell gift of his own — a night to remember forever.