Mamba Day. That’s what the official Nike T-shirt proclaimed with a shiny gold logo on sleek black cotton for sale outside Staples Center in the lead up to Wednesday’s historic game, Kobe Bryant’s last in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. But the thousands of adoring fans who thronged Lakers Fan Fest at L.A. Live wore their own legacy gear in a riot of styles, patterns, fonts and eras. It was a celebration of purple and gold jerseys, but two numbers in particular overwhelmed the rest: #8 and #24. The name above read the same: BRYANT.
Said longtime Lakers fan Dennis Wilshire, who drove down with his family from the high-desert town of Victorville, CA, “Today is the day, Kobe’s last day, so it’s a beautiful day today.”
Kobe's Final Game a Jubilee Occasion
“Jubilee” is an English word derived from Old French for a special anniversary, usually after a twenty-five-year reign. Kobe Bryant’s reign as king of the Lakers lasted twenty, an eternity in professional basketball. But for long stretches in this difficult final season, the specter of his final game loomed less as a coronation and more as a public execution. There had been too many flat performances not up to Kobe’s own punishing standards. Too many DNP’s due to nagging ailments. Too many pictures of him bandaged in ice bags on the sideline like the Michelin man. Would Kobe hobble to the finish line? Would he even finish the game?
Then came last Sunday in Houston. In a blowout loss to the Houston Rockets, Kobe played well, dropping 35 points on the road. It was a late spark in a stretch run, and Lakers fans could almost hear the fuse crackle as it caught fire—a slow, scintillating burn to his 60 point, game-winning explosion against the Utah Jazz that capped his career in triumph. As has been so often the case in countless big games, Kobe was Kobe Wednesday night. That final 60-point effort, Lakers fans know, defines who the man is, and he rewarded his fans’ love with a performance beyond anything even his most pie-eyed supporters could’ve expected.
But well before that starry flourish, all signs pointed to an auspicious day. The Lakers organization hosted a fine three-hour farewell party for fans unable to attend the game. The typically sunny Los Angeles weather was especially glorious, and the atmosphere was jubilant, respectful and full of gratitude for an outgoing hero. A block of Olympic Boulevard outside the arena was blocked off to street traffic. Fans danced to a DJ who hyped the crowd from a specially-erected stage, imploring them to jump for a chance to win free tickets. Others took a turn on a temporary rock wall. A replica basketball court allowed fans to test their skills under yellow-and-gold balloon arches and a giant inflatable statue of Kobe in action.
At other stations set up around L.A. Live’s open-air concourse, Laker Girls signed autographs and posed for pictures; fans had their picture taken with all five of the actual Larry O’Brien trophies the Lakers won during Kobe’s tenure. Sports-radio personalities Max Kellerman and Marcellus Wiley from ESPN 710 Los Angeles broadcast their show live outside Tom’s Urban restaurant, chatting with local radio warhorse Dr. Robert Klapper about Kobe’s 2013 Achilles tear and his subsequent knee injury.
Lakers Fans Came to Support Kobe
Said Mike Williams of Alhambra, CA, “Today means just giving back to Kobe, giving him the same support he gave us for twenty years, just repaying that support, showing him we’re behind him even in retirement.” Pondering how the game might go, he added, “I hope he shoots it fifty times. I don’t care if he’s 1-for-50, you know, as long he leaves it all on the court. I hope he takes his shoes off and leaves ‘em in center court and walks away.”
Perhaps Mr. Williams should’ve asked Max and Marcellus for a radio job while he was there. Kobe wound up shooting the ball exactly 50 times, but he hit a lot more than one of them, making 22 field goals, six threes and going 10-12 from the free throw line in 42 minutes of play. He took his shoes with him to the locker room, however, amid a shower of confetti.
“I mean, you can’t make this stuff up, man,” said an astonished Julius Randle afterwards.
As the sun waned in the West and lucky ticket-holders crowded the entry gates to get inside for the special pre-game tribute, it began to sink in for longtime fans just what was about to happen. Rachel F. of Orange County admitted to mixed feelings:
“I’ve been a Laker fan ever since I was eleven years old and I’ve been dreading this day basically ever since I became a Laker fan. It’s a day I never thought would come and now that it’s here I’m just really emotional, but at the same time I’m super-excited, and I’m happy that this is what he wants and this is what he’s been looking forward to. I’m just here to enjoy the day, and I know I’m going to shed some tears by the time the game is over.”
As fans signed personal messages to Kobe on an eight-foot-tall placard, a Jumbo Tron high above their heads played a highlight reel of Kobe’s shining moments. His Game Four performance against the Indiana Pacers on a sprained ankle in the 2000 Finals, his NBA MVP Award, his 61-point game at Madison Square Garden, his 81-point domination of the Toronto Raptors, and all five of his NBA Championship celebrations. He would add one last highlight several hours later, but by then the Jumbo Tron was turned off, forcing fans to catch it elsewhere.
“We’re gonna win,” Chicago native turned L.A. transplant Adolphus McElroy stated emphatically about forty-five minutes before tipoff. “Last game, we’re gonna win that game. Always and forever. I’m an L.A. fan. L.A. all the way!”
Not everyone was so optimistic though. Lauren Cruz of Los Angeles held a homemade sign referencing the late, great Lakers announcer Chick Hearn. “History’s in the Refrigerator,” it read. “After twenty years growing up watching Kobe Bryant, an incredible journey has come to an end,” she said. But she didn’t like the Lakers chances in the game. “Well, unfortunately I don’t think the Lakers are going to win, but hopefully I’ll get Kobe Bryant’s autograph.”
Kobe's Will to Win Was His Greatest Asset
To Ms. Cruz’s credit, not even Kobe imagined the game would play out as it did. In his final press conference he admitted how tired he was, but that his teammates kept pushing him to score with the victory in reach. Coach Byron Scott revealed that the initial plan was to pull Kobe in the fourth quarter, but they looked at each other when the moment arrived, and both knew he wasn’t going to the bench, not if he could help it. In the end, the will to win overcame his exhaustion, as it had in 2010 in Game Seven against the Boston Celtics, as it has his entire career.
“My family calls him Babe Ruth, in fact,” said Jack Nicholson in one of the many touching tributes in Time Warner Cable Sportsnet’s “Farewell to Kobe” postgame special. “You know, there’s nothing quite like Kobe.” And Jack has seen them all.
Kobe is not just the greatest player of his generation. He’s not just second-best after Michael Jordan. He’s not just “the Best Laker Ever,” as Shaquille O’Neal has called him. He’s a last link to an older era of basketball, and of all sports really, that is vanishing before our eyes. An era in which great talent was not enough; an iron will, obsessive attention to detail and craft, insane competitiveness, and a scholar’s knowledge of the game were the true hallmarks of a champion. Star players will always ascend to the basketball firmament. Steph Curry may end up being better than Kobe fifteen years from now. But Los Angeles will never see another player like 24, and neither will the game.
In the midst of the hoopla Wednesday afternoon, a young girl pointed to Staples Center and asked her father, “Is Kobe in there?” He wasn’t. It was only about 4:30PM, and he hadn’t arrived yet. But now it’s official. Kobe Bean Bryant has left the building. He gave us everything he had, and it was more than enough.
Thank you, Kobe, for the memories.