The broken Kobe Bryant bricked his first five shots, yet for the next two hours the Lakers legend kept shooting, shooting, shooting.
It was as if he knew he was aiming at forever.
Once the scoring started, the packed Staples Center crowd began chanting, then cheering, then roaring, constantly roaring, creating the most deafening din in the building’s history.
It was as if they knew this love would have to last forever.
There is a strict rule against cheering in the press box, yet when all the shooting and scoring multiplied into something mystical, a certain columnist jumped to his feet and screamed.
It was as if I knew I would be seeing this forever.
The magic of Kobe Bryant’s 60-point final game against the Utah Jazz five years ago was so plain, so pervasive, so … astounding, it was as if everyone involved knew the unknowable.
That this would be the lasting memory. That this would be the indelible portrait. That this would be a forever farewell.
Bryant and Los Angeles would come together briefly for a two-jersey retirement ceremony a year later, but never again. He will not hear the cheers at his Staples Center statue unveiling. He will not give a speech at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He will never have a chance to connect with the crowd on slow walks to his courtside seat for upcoming decades of Lakers playoff games.
His death in January 2020 ensured that the final game of his career would, for most, be the last real vision anyone had of the most glowing athlete in Los Angeles history.
In that, it was absolutely perfect. For that, it was heavenly scripted.
Even though it didn’t involve a championship, it was inarguably one of greatest Lakers moments ever, because it was about something far bigger. It was about the final framing and hanging of a legacy. It was about that priceless chance for one last hug, for one more goodbye.
“I can’t believe this actually happened,” Bryant said afterward. “I’m still in shock about it.”
Five years later, that shock remains.
He threw up 50 shots — 50 shots! — the most in the NBA since they started keeping track of such things more than three decades earlier.
Of his 22 baskets, 18 were made with a defender in his face, and 16 were made without a direct pass, meaning he basically took on the entire Jazz team by himself.
His 60 points were the most in the NBA that season, all scored by a 37-year-old man who could barely move.
Remember that seemingly outrageous two-year, $48.5-million contract he was given at the frail end of his career? Those final hours paid that bill.
“I gave my soul to this game,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can give.”
He actually left everything on the court much earlier, during a farewell season that was a bit of a well-intentioned mess. Once he made his retirement announcement Nov. 29, the Lakers openly dedicated the season to his last ride, giving him the sort of deserved autonomy that allowed him to give the world one last chance to see his greatness in final visits around the league. But in answering the call of history, his presence unwittingly stifled the rest of the team.
It’s hard to believe now, but the worst squad in Laker history contained Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. They are all players who have since achieved relative stardom elsewhere, yet playing with Bryant, they never had a chance to jell and grow, as he dominated the ball, the court, and the narrative, and not always gracefully.
That season he was one of the worst shooters in NBA history, one of the worst defenders in the league, yet he still averaged 28 minutes in his 66 games under the direction of ill-fated coach Byron Scott.
By the way, poor Scott. His main job was keeping Bryant happy, and he did, yet after the season he was fired for the results, one of the more unfair decisions in Lakers’ coaching history.
Bryant gave his fans what they wanted with plenty of playing time, but paid dearly for it, and by the time his final game arrived, he was a walking ice pack. While leaving the stage after one of his last news conferences before the finale, his knees knocked and he nearly fell over.
“Man, isn’t this something?” he told me, speaking of the strange, building drama.
Before the final game, despite the presence of hundreds of media and dozens of celebrities, there was no guarantee of any heroics. There was no guarantee Kobe would even play much. Then he missed his first five shots, including throwing up an airball, and the crowd groaned, and it seemed this was going to be a clumsy farewell fit for an awkward season.
Then, Mamba happened.
Kobe blocked a Trevor Booker layup, and seconds later hit a jump shot. Then another one. And another one. And another one. And then a three-pointer to give him five consecutive baskets, and it was on.
For the next two hours, Bryant waved off the rest of the world and owned the court, owned the crowd, owned the legend. Amid relentless deafening chants of “Ko-be, Ko-be,” Bryant scored from every possible angle, on every conceivable shot, from courtside to layups to how-did-he-do-that? As the Staples Center seats became a dancing mosh pit, Bryant scowled and posed and cursed and scored and, one last time, bared his heart for a city to embrace.
In the beginning it was sweet, then sensational, then, in the fourth quarter, it rose to the level of stunning. Twenty-three points in the final period! Chopped down a 14-point deficit! Won the game, 101-96!
Sometime in those final minutes, overcome with the moment, I stood and screamed. My former coworker J.A. Adande, who was sitting next to me, grabbed my arm and howled.
The only other time the two of us acted so unprofessionally was 16 years earlier, when I pounded my fists and Adande jumped out of his seat when Bryant threw that alley-oop pass to Shaquille O’Neal against Portland in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
We had come full circle. Kobe had come full circle. Anyone who followed Kobe for the last 20 years had come full circle, and the game ended with Kobe milestones that will live forever.
His last official basket? It gave the Lakers the lead they never lost.
His last official stat? It was, quite unbelievably, a floor-length assist.
One of his last hugs while wearing a Lakers uniform? He embraced giant courtside fan Shaquille O’Neal.
His last two official words while wearing a Laker uniform and standing on a basketball court? You know this answer. Everyone knows this answer.
“Mamba out,” Kobe Bryant told the crowd.
It was if he knew he was speaking into forever.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.