The word went out through the hallways at Staples Center before tipoff of his final NBA game, teammates, staff and locker room attendants all scrambling to get something in the hands of Kobe Bryant, the retiring Lakers star, while he was holding onto a marker and in the mood.
Over the course of Bryant’s last season, he’d become a memorabilia machine, signing sneakers for stars like LeBron James and Paul George. For the people with the Lakers? It was a little different.
People who knew Bryant for decades maybe asked only two or three times for Bryant to sign something. They didn’t want to impose. And they didn’t want to give Bryant any reason to believe that they weren’t on the same level (even if it was true).
On April 13, 2016, it was different. No more judgments or intimidation. Just an old-fashioned autograph signing session — that just happened to take place inside an NBA locker room.
They grabbed sneakers, jerseys, programs. Some sent locker-room attendants out with credit cards to go get something — maybe one of those $38.24 T-shirts — upon which Bryant could sign his name with that familiar signature — that loopy K with the long-tailed “e” and “t.”
“It was a frenzy before the game,” Mark Madsen, an assistant coach at the time, remembered. “… You just, it just wasn’t something you did. You just didn’t ask Kobe for his autograph. But I think everyone, everyone knew, you know, that this was it.”
As they handed Bryant any surface that could handle a signature, no one could’ve known what was about to happen, that Bryant would deliver a 60-point, 50-shot masterpiece that perfectly encapsulated him as a player.
The ink on those sneakers and uniforms eventually will fade. The memories from Bryant’s last game as a professional basketball player? They’re too ridiculous to vanish.
For much of his 20-year career, Bryant demanded a level of greatness, setting the bar so high that only a few could get to his level. For his final game, No. 1,346, Bryant set the bar much lower.
“I just didn’t want to play bad,” he said after the game.
There was some faux humility in the statement, but considering Bryant’s last season with the Lakers, not playing badly might have been an appropriate goal. There were some truly awful games on the way to the finish line, the Lakers losing 10 of 11 while Bryant’s field-goal percentage crept down near 35%.
He had one last game to create one more moment, the Lakers long eliminated from the playoffs and again headed into the draft lottery, meaning Bryant would walk into the building knowing he’d never be back as a player.
After briefly flirting with the idea that his last game would be “normal,” Bryant gave in to the inevitable. This was going to be a circus — so if a championship was off the table, an epic performance would be the best he could give.
He arrived at the building in all-black outfit — suit, shirt and tie — as he slithered to the locker room with a swarm of cameras following his every step. By walking away, he managed to bring the Lakers back to the top at the end of a 17-win season, creating an event worthy of the Lakers and Los Angeles, one with stars scattered throughout the stands.
If you were on the Lakers and you wanted to check into the game, you had to step over Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23s as the Hall of Famer sat courtside. Referee Monty McCutchen had another fan in the front row heckling his first whistle and he turned around to see rock star Adam Levine. Kanye West eventually got into the Lakers’ locker room. Jay-Z dribbled through the back hallways on his way to Staples Center’s subterranean parking lot.
Before the game they watched a pair of tribute videos and listened to Magic Johnson call Bryant the greatest to wear “the purple and gold.” Then, after they roared upon hearing Bryant announced as a starter, they promptly watched him miss his first five shots.
But he wouldn’t let his story end that way.
“It just adds to his legacy of greatness even more,” Madsen said of what was to come.
Before the Lakers tipped off with the Jazz, longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak stood in the tunnel to the team’s locker room. He asked Clay Moser, who was handling analytics for the team and later became a full-time assistant coach, if he thought the team could send off Bryant the right way and Bryant could score 30 points.
“‘He’s still Kobe,’” Moser recalled replying. “‘Yeah he can get 30’” … and then we had that conversation in increments of 10.”
Thirty points was sort of the informal goal for the Lakers and Bryant’s teammates, a worthy sendoff that still seemed sort of realistic. The people inside the organization and locker room knew not to expect too much. They knew what Bryant was up against.
Throughout his final season, Bryant rarely was at practices or shootarounds. The team often wouldn’t know if his 37-year-old legs would be able to play until he arrived at the arena on game night. Bryant already had a reputation for being a bit of a isolationist, so the work to get him ready to play was exhaustive, taking hours.
So yeah, 30 points would’ve been a giant success. But this night was different, the energy, the emotion, the stakes helping transport Bryant back in time, showing his two young daughters in attendance the kind of player he used to be without them logging on to YouTube to see his greatest hits.
“All of Kobe’s pet moves were on display,” NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein said. “I think I expected him to score 40 that night. I was startled when he reached 50. And I was amazed when he made it to 60.”
Bryant called the game “a constant dance” between being in the moment and noticing how wild things had gotten. He might not have realized, but it was a shared connection with so many different people in the building.
At the scorer’s table, NBA communications vice president Tim Frank and Lakers public relations director John Black couldn’t stop laughing at what they were seeing.
“Every time he made a shot, it just got funnier,” Frank said. “It was just so him.”
On the court McCutchen was relying on his training as an official to do the same thing, to stay in the game and not get caught up in what he was witnessing. He had gotten the assignment a few weeks before the finale, slowly realizing that he’d be on the floor with Bryant for his last game.
“The biggest thing I walked away from was living up this feeling of wanting to live up to the trust of the league, but also this legacy of one of our seminal players in the league history,” said McCutchen, now the NBA’s head of official training and development.
Bryant got hot at the end of the first quarter, shaking off the 0-for-5 start to score 15 points in a four-minute flurry. A split trip to the line got him to 22 at halftime, the 30-point goal easily within reach.
The Lakers were down 10 in the third quarter when Bryant got to 30 and down 12 early in the fourth when he got 40 on a 26-foot three-pointer. He hit another three and a mid-range jumper to get to 45, but with a little more than three minutes left, the Lakers were down 10 and on the verge of losing, a bitter taste for Bryant, who was obsessed with winning.
So something happened.
“It was like ‘The Natural,’” McCutchen said, “you know, like the last at-bat going out there … and hitting the grand slam.”
It started with Bryant at the left elbow, his back to the basket, Gordon Hayward defending. Bryant spun baseline and paused, drawing the defense off balance. He glided underneath the rim and pushed up a reverse. On the Lakers’ next possession, he drilled two free throws to give himself 50.
Ninety seconds after the reverse, he again went to the rack and scored, the Lakers now down six and the crowd in total pandemonium. Teammate Julius Randle grinned. Bryant panted for air, his chest pulsing in and out. Sweat beaded and dripped down his aged face.
The outcome was becoming clear.
Mid-range jumper? Swish. Deep three? Swish. Fifty-six points and the Lakers down one.
“That’s the way to do it, O.G.,” reserve center Tarik Black said as Bryant collapsed into a timeout huddle.
Next, he had the ball at the top of the key, Randle creating space with just a bone-crunching (and almost certainly illegal) screen. Bryant dribbled right to the wing opposite the Jazz bench and somehow elevated enough to get off a 20-foot jumper. Again, swish. Bryant pounded his chest
The Lakers were leading. He scored his 59th and 60th points at the free-throw line, icing the game and leaving the floor as a winner.
“Then for him at the end to go into the locker room and just tell everybody, he said, ‘Listen, I gave this game everything I had every single night. I’ll never had any regrets on how I played or how I left the game,’” said Byron Scott, the Lakers’ coach at the time. “He encouraged those guys to go out every night like that and play like it’s your last every single night. It was emotional. It was heartfelt, and he meant it. And he told the truth.”
“It’s just like a dream,” Bryant later said.
At first, he didn’t want to take off his jersey.
Bryant sat and spoke to the media in his sweaty, gold uniform, reflecting on 20 years and 48 incredible, final minutes.
Team employees eventually had to round up a team sweatsuit because he was too tired to get back into the all-black suit he arrived in.
Bryant milled around the court, signing the floor. He spent time talking to anyone there who had a connection to the organization. He posed for photos with his wife and girls. You don’t just perform a miracle and bolt. You bask in it.
In a career full of officiating games, only Michael Jordan’s 55-point night in Madison Square Garden rivals Bryant’s farewell in McCutchen’s memory.
During one trip to the foul line, McCutchen briefly escaped the game to share a moment with Bryant, telling him how much he always appreciated the way the Lakers star dealt with him, the authenticity, good and bad, that Bryant operated with.
“That meant a great deal to me, because that’s how steel gets forged is through fire. And the fire can only take place if both people are being real and authentic,” McCutchen said. “And I took the time to tell him … I think the exact words I said was, ‘Whatever got exchanged between you and I was real. And I’m appreciative of that.’”
It was a sliver of a moment in a night that ended up being full of them — the tributes, the on-court magic, the postgame celebration and obvious exhaustion. Everyone there had a memory, a smile when thinking about their role in a perfect farewell.
As Bryant walked around the court, confetti falling from the ceiling, he turned to one longtime Lakers employee an asked something like, “What did I just do?”
For one final time as a player, Bryant made history, authoring a story that was almost too good to be true.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.