Playing in the last game of his 20-year career, Kobe Bryant put on a show for a sold-out Staples Center crowd one final time, pouring in a season-high 60 points and steering his team to a 101-96 comeback win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night.
After outscoring the Jazz by himself 23-21 in the fourth quarter, Bryant checked out with 4.1 seconds left, serenaded by “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” chants.
“I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by. Man, this is crazy,” Bryant, an 18-time All-Star, said while addressing the crowd after the game. “This is absolutely crazy … and to be standing at center court with you guys, my teammates behind me, appreciating the journey that we’ve been on — we’ve been through our ups, been through our downs. I think the most important part is we all stayed together throughout.”
Bryant spoke about growing up a “die-hard Laker fan” and the trade that led to him spending 20 years with the organization and winning five NBA championships.
“You can’t write something better than this,” he said.
Wednesday’s win wrapped up the Lakers’ worst season in franchise history at 17-65, but Bryant said he took pride in the down years “because we didn’t run. We played through all that stuff, and we got our championships, and we did it the right way.”
Bryant attempted 50 shots Wednesday night, the most taken by anyone in an NBA game in the past 30 seasons, according to Stats LLC. It was the sixth 60-point game of his career and marked the most points scored by a player in his final regular-season game. No Hall of Famer reached 30 points in his final game, with John Havlicek’s 29 in 1978 leading the way.
“What’s funny — the thing that had me cracking up all night long — the fact that I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball, and then the last night they’re like, ‘Don’t pass it!'” Bryant said, laughing.
“All I can do here is thank you guys,” he told the crowd. “Thank you guys for all the years of support. Thank you guys for all the motivation. Thank you for all the inspiration.”
“What can I say? Mamba out,” Bryant said with a smile in closing.
Bryant’s teammates sprayed him with champagne upon entering the locker room, to which he responded: “That’s only for championships.”
Bryant said he plans to continue to work out Thursday, if only to avoid falling into bad habits.
Hours before Wednesday’s game, thousands of fans gathered outside Staples Center, creating a scene reminiscent of a championship celebration. Enormous photos of iconic moments from Bryant’s 20-season NBA career graced the walls outside the arena with the hashtag #ThankYouKobe.
Inside the arena, a sold-out crowd showered Bryant with love and adoration as lengthy video tributes played before and during the game.
“He never cheated us as fans,” Lakers icon Magic Johnson said as he addressed fans before the game. “He has played hurt, and we have five championship banners to show for it.”
Johnson then introduced a moving tribute video that featured messages from Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Gregg Popovich, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Kevin Garnett, Phil Jackson and Jack Nicholson, a longtime Lakers fan.
“It’s been great watching you, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it half as much as me and my family have,” Nicholson said in the video. “You’ve been an inspiration to us all, and L.A. loves you.”
O’Neal, Bryant’s former Lakers teammate, called Bryant “the greatest Laker ever.”
A smiling Bryant then walked to center court and waved to the fans, who were on their feet, cheering as loudly as they have all season.
Lakers public address announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced Bryant in the starting lineup, noting that it was for “the final time” as deafening cheers rained down from the crowd.
Wearing a black suit, black shirt and black tie and surrounded by more than a dozen video cameras, Bryant told dozens of reporters standing behind a barricade in a hallway before the game that his goal for the night was to “just have some fun.”
Before the game, Bryant and his wife were presented with special retirement rings from Lakers president and governor Jeanie Buss.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 14, 2016
Bryant gave each of his teammates commemorative shoes and jerseys.
“It’s nuts,” Lakers rookie forward Larry Nance said of the environment. “It feels like a concert.”
Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, played the national anthem Jimi Hendrix-style.
During a first-quarter timeout, another video tribute was played, featuring messages from several musicians, including Snoop Dogg, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Flea, John Legend, Ice Cube, Kanye West and Justin Bieber.
Serena Williams congratulated Bryant via Twitter, writing, “You inspire every athlete for a lifetime.”
During the game, the Lakers’ official Twitter account disappeared for 35 minutes as the social media site experienced technical issues. Scheduled tweets failed to send, and some users experienced difficulties accessing the site and sending tweets.
The account was back up and running before long, though, and offered an explanation for the outage.
Sorry about that, everybody.
Kobe got too hot for the Twitter servers.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 14, 2016
An estimated 450 to 500 media members were credentialed for the game.
“It’s surreal,” Bryant 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.”