He had been tasked with steering the incomparable Kobe Bryant through his final season, a job Byron Scott treasured as coach of the Lakers, his only focus to see his protege complete his sensational 20-year NBA career on a high.
They had reached the finish line of Bryant’s final act, his last time on stage coming April 13, 2016, at Staples Center, the showman about to put on a performance like never seen before in the annals of sports.
Bryant reached back to his glory days and produced one last magical moment for all to see and enjoy — a 60-point masterpiece at the age of 37.
The artist had painted one last memorable picture, leaving his audience enthralled by his work and Scott satisfied that he got Bryant to the end with the ability left to show his greatness one more time.
“My first recollection of it was when we walked into the locker room, I was like, ‘All right, mission No. 1 was accomplished,’ and my mission that whole season was to get him to Game 82 and get him there relativity healthy as best as I could,” Scott recalled about that day five years ago. “I wanted him to play in that last game. So, I was like, OK, that’s accomplished. That’s mission No. 1.
“And then mission No. 2 basically was that he would have a good game. When he started off like 0 for 5, I was hurt because I was like, ‘I just don’t want Kobe to go out like this. I want him to have a decent game.’ But then he hit his [first] shot, hit another one, got a couple of free throws and all of a sudden he started rolling.”
On Nov. 29, 2015, Bryant announced that it would be his last season playing in the NBA.
In his first-person story for the Players’ Tribune titled “Dear Basketball,” Bryant said in part, “This season is all I have left to give.”
Scott, who was among Bryant’s first mentors in his rookie season with the Lakers, did his best to guide Bryant the rest of the way during an injury-hampered 2015-16 season in which Bryant played 66 games.
Once they got to that final game against the Utah Jazz, Scott was intent on seeing Bryant through his 1,346th regular-season game.
As the game progressed, and with Bryant carrying a heavy scoring load, Scott said he got a tug from Gary Vitti, the preeminent Lakers trainer for 32 years, with about seven minutes left in the game.
“You got to call a timeout or you are going to lose him,” Scott recalled Vitti telling him. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, but he’s rolling.’”
Scott called a timeout and looked up at the scoreboard.
“I think he had damn near close to 50,” Scott said. “I was like, “Can you believe this s—? Can you believe this s—, man?’ So I’m in the huddle and I just tell everybody to ‘get the f— out of the way. Let him keep going.’”
Before they left the huddle, Scott said he turned to Lakers assistant coach Paul Pressey and said, “Press, he’s exhausted.”
“I go back and I kneel down, and before I even wrote a play down, I looked at Kobe, he looked at me, and he was just breathing heavily and I said, ‘KB, you got another seven minutes, seven and a half minutes left in that body of yours?’” Scott said. “[Kobe] said, ‘Absolutely.’ I punched him in the chest, and I was like, ‘All right. All right.’”
Bryant scored 38 points in the second half, 23 in the fourth, outscoring the Jazz team by two points in the final quarter. He scored 15 consecutive points to help the Lakers overcome a 94-84 deficit in the fourth to lead them to a 101-96 win that knocked the Jazz out of playoff contention.
He took a career-high 50 shots from the field, making 22.
Bryant’s final play was an assist to Jordan Clarkson for a dunk with four seconds left.
The Jazz called a 20-second timeout, giving Scott the opportunity to pull Bryant from the game to a standing ovation that rocked the building.
“Him coming off the court and coming right to me and giving me a hug, man, I’ll never forget that,” Scott said. “I can see it and feel it like it was yesterday. It was just a feeling of satisfaction, a feeling of disbelief — ‘This man just scored 60 in his last game.’ Ain’t nobody in my lifetime, I think, is going to go out like that. This is the [stuff] that Hollywood is made of. This is the perfect ending of a movie. I had all of those emotions going through me.”
He still does, especially knowing that Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, leaving Scott to say, “It’s hard about the loss of him not being here anymore.”
Scott had been with Bryant at the beginning for his rookie season.
Scott had spent 10 seasons as a guard with the Lakers, winning three NBA championships. But after playing for the Indiana Pacers for two years and the Vancouver Grizzlies for one, he returned to the Lakers for the 1996-97 season, Bryant’s rookie year with the Lakers.
Scott, in the final season of his NBA playing career, became a mentor for Bryant, the two of them talking basketball, Scott listening and hearing how driven Bryant was to be great.
“Witnessing him as a rookie and sitting on the bench talking to him, talking to him in the locker room, kind of telling him to watch for this on the bench. Just being that mentor and being there for a young kid,” Scott said. “He knew what he wanted to do, but nobody else on the team was really kind of talking to him about this is what you got to do.
“I used to say, ‘Showboat, come here and let me talk to you about this. Watch this dude here. Watch this. In practice, this is what you got to do.’ And so we just got to be real close, and then for me to come full circle with Kobe at 37, 20 years later at 37, now to be his coach, his last coach and to witness his maturation, it’s nothing like it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.