The 20-year-span of watching Kobe Bryant daze and confuse defenders with his array of offensive weapons has finally come to an end, but not before we witnessed him brandishing those weapons of mass destruction one more time.
Last night, in his swan song performance, he exited stage left by dropping 60 points on the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated from the playoffs with a Houston win. Early in the game the Los Angeles Lakers were down by as much as six points, and Kobe had missed his first five shots in a row.
But you could tell by the way teammates were risking turnovers to sloppily force the ball into Kobe's hands throughout the 1st quarter, and the seemingly pensive atmosphere that not only affected a few Lakers ball handlers but permeated the very pace of the game, that something amazing and electrical was on the verge of happening.
It was already written.
Bryant would drain his first jump shot for two, which were his only points scored with 5:12 left in the quarter, but by 1:47 he would have 15 points. The Staples Center was rocking and you couldn't help but do the math in your head. "Well, if Kobe Bryant scores 15 points in each quarter he would have 60, no problem!"
Yeah, no problem for the amazing Kobe of ten years ago. No problem before the torn Achilles and torn rotator cuff. Certainly no problem for the Brandy Norwood-dating, Adidas Crazy Eights wearing, Philly fade-having, Kobe Bryant of 20 years ago.
However, at 37-years-old, Kobe is finally beholden to the laws of the universe; things are born and things grow old. The sight was sometimes painful to watch.
This season he averaged near career- lows in scoring, field goal percentage and minutes played. By any and every meaningful basketball measure, Kobe is old. Yes, he has carried the legacy of Lakers franchise that is steeped in the bright lights and big dreams of a Hollywood feature film, but this is real life.
Nobody walks off into the sunset. They either run off, limp off or get carried out on a stretcher. But Kobe Bryant is no normal player. He is an all-time great.
We didn't want to see him score no stinkin' 20 points! No way, homes! The retiring basketball megastar would go into the half with 22 points.
At that point the Utah Jazz led by 15 points, 57-42. But I was banking on a Kobe revival of some sort at the start of the 3rd for various reasons.
One, this is the same Utah Jazz franchise against which Kobe shot an air ball in the `97 NBA playoffs - a pivotal moment of growth. Two, reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry and the record-hunting Golden State Warriors were looking to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record for regular season excellence.
As big a competitor as Kobe is, there is no way that he was going to quietly walk off into history. He was going to go out with a bang. In what was a top-five career performance, Bryant would score 23 of his points in the 4th quarter, including an icy and clutch three point jump shot with 31.4 seconds left that hit nothing but net.
You didn't have to like Kobe Bryant as a person, and many did not. You didn't have to like his shoes when he was with adidas, and many did not. But what you had to do was respect the fact that this man is one of the greatest players in NBA history, a man who even Earvin "Magic" Johnson said is the greatest Laker of All-Time.
38 points in the second half, 23 points in the 4th. This a fitting tally for a fitting departure. Kobe Bryant became the oldest player in NBA history to score 60 points. It was his first game of 50 or more points in seven years. And was there any better way for him to put a period behind his incredible career?
In Hollywood, they call that a happy ending. Almost unbelievable, right? Too good to be true. But that's exactly was Kobe was as a basketball player and competitor. As the credits rolled, the film faded to black as the lights came on, all of us around the globe, love him or hate him, had no choice to give him a standing ovation, look around, and ask ourselves, "Did that really just happen?"