There was some magic left in that battered, weary body after all.
Kobe Bryant has played the final game of his professional career, and in doing so, he produced undoubtedly the most remarkable moments of a trying season.
The Los Angeles Lakers are bad; there is no getting around it. They set a franchise record for losses for the second season in a row, often looking completely overmatched against the league’s elite teams.
However, for the fans that packed the Staples Center and all of those watching at home, the team’s struggles didn’t matter. It was Kobe’s night, and the opportunity to celebrate his career was all that the Lakers faithful were asking for.
In the end, they got so much more than that.
After a touching introduction from Magic Johnson and a video montage of former teammates and foes expressing their gratitude, the last game began. As expected, Bryant was given the ball early and often, firing away to the roar of the crowd.
Through much of the contest, the Utah Jazz lead the way, taking advantage of the typically porous Laker defense as well as predictable offense. The ball was going to Kobe, and everyone knew it.
Still, after a shaky start, Bryant picked up some momentum as the first quarter wore on, hitting on a variety of jumpers and drives to the basket.
His shooting was hot and cold throughout the second and third quarters, and the Lakers fell behind by double digits. It appeared as though Bryant’s final performance in a Lakers uniform was going to come in a losing effort.
Like “Rocky”, though, the sentiment was that the outcome didn’t really matter. It was the journey to get there that was captivating the crowd, Bryant’s own personal rage against the dying of the light providing the entertainment.
Little by little, his point total climbed higher.
Kobe hit 40 with nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers’ defense began to clamp down on the Jazz. Role players made big plays, like Tarik Black’s massive block on Rodney Hood that led to an alley-oop dunk for Larry Nance Jr. in transition. Everyone wanted to win it for Kobe.
As Kobe’s career slipped away the score drew closer and closer. He would have an opportunity the win one final time, after all.
Determined, Bryant set about his task, hitting jumpers in the paint and scoring on drives to the basket. With just over three minutes to play, the Lakers trailed by 10, and Bryant looked exhausted.
This was the player who had so many ice packs strapped to his body after every recent game that he resembled a mummy, leaving us to wonder if there was still a man left underneath it all.
“I can’t believe this actually happened.”
But pain is temporary, and there are no more games to preserve him for. It was time to pull out all the stops.
That’s when the incredible happened. The Lakers’ defense locked down on Utah and Kobe caught fire. He drove to the basket twice, scoring each time. He swished a pair of free throws. Then came a pull-up jumper, followed by a step-back three.
The Utah lead had been reduced to just one point thanks to Bryant’s scoring flurry. He was putting the team on his back and willing them to victory one final time.
After a Jazz miss, Kobe hit a fade-away jumper from the right side of the floor to give the Lakers the lead for good. It would be the last field goal of his career.
The Jazz came up empty on the next trip and were forced to foul to stop the clock. Kobe calmly sank two free throws to bring his point total to a whopping 60.
Utah missed once again on the next possession, and Bryant whipped the ball ahead to Jordan Clarkson for a break-away dunk. Ironically, the last statistic of Bryant’s career was an assist.
As Kobe was swarmed by current and former teammates and the crowd celebrated, one couldn’t help but sit in awe of what had just happened.
Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his career and hit clutch shot after clutch shot to lead the Lakers to a victory. Short of winning a championship, you couldn’t ask for a better storybook finish.
And yet, the way Kobe went out is completely in line with how he played the game. He made a career out of doing the impossible, succeeding where any other athlete would have failed.
Bryant was obsessed with becoming the best basketball player he could, and as his career comes to a close we can definitively say that he did just that.
Perhaps to a greater degree than anyone who has come before him, Kobe maximized every last ounce of talent in his body. While the championships, the Gold medals, the All-Star appearances, and the MVP award are all impressive, Kobe’s greatest achievement just may be the fight he won against his own limitations. It was a challenge he accepted on a daily basis, with no quarter given.
For a player so often characterized as selfish, he gave so, so much. Year in and year out he played himself to absolute exhaustion while attempting to will his team to victory.
On Wednesday night, we witnessed more than a basketball game, more than an incredible performance. We saw a man with an uncanny ability to push his body past its limits give everything he had left.
Coaches always tell their players to leave everything on the floor, to make sure that you have nothing left in the tank so that you can say that you did all that you could.
“To give them (the fans) this type of show…the last one…that means everything”
Kobe did just that. He left basketball with his gas tank on empty, and in doing so he created a night that will live on forever.
On a evening that was supposed to be about giving our thanks to him, Kobe Bean Bryant flipped the script and honored the fans, the game, and the city of Los Angeles with one last unbelievable performance.
Before the game began Magic Johnson called him the greatest to ever wear the purple and gold. Over the next few hours, Kobe Bryant proved him right.