Kobe Bryant provides one last transcendent performance

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – Midnight had passed, and Kobe Bryant didn’t want to leave the Staples Center court. Come on, one more photo. Everyone push closer. Smile now. The black suit he wore into the night was gone, replaced with a pullover Los Angeles Lakers sweatshirt. All around him, his wife and daughters, there were confetti and purple and gold balloons. Everyone pushed closer, the flashes flickering, and soon Bryant’s eyes would be wandering, searching for someone else to gather around them and pose for a picture.

Suddenly, everyone dispersed, and Bryant found himself standing in the center circle now, and he bent down and lifted his arm over his head and slapped down on that Lakers emblem. And then slapped again, only this time harder.

“God,” Kobe Bryant said as Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, as the most compelling basketball icon of a generation struggled to measure the end of a career against the end of a magnificent and magical night.

Everything had been constructed for a ceremonial goodbye on Wednesday night, and Kobe Bryant still tried to understand how a carefully crafted A-list Hollywood party turned into a transcendent performance. Everyone had come to remember and honor yesterday, but had left screaming, and stunned. On his way out of the Lakers, out of the NBA, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points on the Utah Jazz, and did the unthinkable in the basketball universe: He made the Golden State Warriors setting a forever record of 73 regular-season victories a sidebar.

When the game and his career were over, he grabbed a microphone and delivered some heartfelt thank yous, but mostly they’ll remember his closing: “Mamba out,” punctuated with him dropping the mic on the floor.

Yes, Bryant had to shoot 50 times to reach 60 points. No one seemed to mind. And yes, he was exhausted, breathing so hard that his teammates wondered if he could keep going, if passing him the ball over and over, setting screens upon screens, would wipe him out before the fourth quarter. Only, he became stronger in the fourth quarter. He made big shots, including two immense 3-pointers to complete an improbable 101-96 comeback victory over the Jazz.

An hour later, Bryant stood on the court with his longtime agent, Rob Pelinka, and told him about that 3-pointer with 30 seconds left that secured the victory.

No legs, Rob. Nothing left. “Shot it with my arms,” Bryant said.

Perhaps, this was the most amazing part of Wednesday night: The Mamba legend grew. Bryant built stories and lore to come out of the final game of his basketball life. Twenty seasons, and Kobe Bryant had come out of Wednesday night with something he had never imagined: A final chapter, an ending, a performance, however flawed and imperfect, befitting the pomp and circumstance of the moment. Mostly, he wanted to get out of his farewell game without embarrassing himself, without letting Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson and Elgin Baylor – never mind a Staples sellout crowd and millions watching around the world – see him stumble.

Whenever Bryant hit a tough stretch, he fought his way out of it. It was the story of this season, of these final few years when nothing came easy to him. “There were times where I drove to the basket and my legs were just like, ‘What, are you nuts?’ But I just throw the ball up and it goes in, and [I’m] like, ‘Thank God.’”

Bryant hadn’t been chasing a forever performance, but history and he are like magnets. They find each other. At times, Bryant found himself fighting the finality of the routines. He kept thinking to himself, “This is the last time,” as he pulled up his socks and tied his sneakers and pulled that No. 24 jersey over his back. “Last time …” as he ran through the tunnel with his teammates and started to get loose on the Staples Center floor. And then, Magic Johnson grabbed a microphone and called him the greatest Laker of all time.

“I refuse to believe it, because Magic is my hero,” Bryant said. “Magic was all over my wall. I used to wear really big knee pads because Magic wore really big knee pads.”

Magic is the greatest Laker of all, but Kobe can make his case with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a fight for second place. Now, Bryant is part of the Lakers’ past too, leaving the franchise to lose relevancy until it can regain an identity. Coach Byron Scott has a team option on his contract for next season, league sources told The Vertical, and there’s strong belief within the organization that he’ll be brought back next season. For now, there’s too much discord in ownership to generate a consensus on making a coaching change, sources said.

Bryant is moving into a storytelling career, promising to go to his office on Thursday and immediately begin the next chapter of his life. He was working out of his office until two o’clock on his final gameday, and swears he’ll back on Thursday morning, too.

Before the tip on Wednesday, Lakers teammates were rushing into the Lakers store, purchasing jerseys and getting Bryant to sign them. People wanted pieces of him – photos, memorabilia – and Bryant found himself honoring requests, cluttering his mind and time with so much of the moment’s minutiae.

The job, he kept thinking to himself, do the job. There were these video tributes on the board above him: Jack Nicholson and Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett. He stole glances, catching snippets, but he kept reminding himself that there would be time for the nostalgia later. Who’s guarding me? What are they running at me on defense? Bryant kept coming back to the simplicities of the game, the best counter for emotions that threatened to consume him.

Bryant found himself thinking about something else too: His girls sitting courtside. They hadn’t remembered much of him dominating the NBA. “They actually saw me play like I used to play,” Bryant said. They watched the villain turn into a hero, and back again. After midnight, they played soccer with a purple balloon at center court. The old man kept posing for photos, kept saying his goodbyes.

As it turned out, he had his Derek Jeter moment. Five-time champion, bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium, and drives a hard base hit into right-field to score the winning run. That Jeter finish felt so much like the Kobe Bryant ending: A long, arduous tour around the league, and the same deep-seated fears at the end. Can I rise up one more time? Can I deliver the drama? Can I make them remember the game, the performance – not just the ceremony?

Here it was past midnight, and I walked up to Kobe Bryant and simply said, “You found an ending to your story, didn’t you?”

“Go f---in’ figure, huh?” Kobe Bryant responded to me with a look of pure astonishment. He stared with a stone seriousness for a moment, and then dissolved into laughter and asked me: “Seriously, what the f--- happened tonight, man?”

One more time, Kobe Bean Bryant happened. Yes, Mamba out. Goodbye, No. 24.

 

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