By all accounts, it was the greatest career-ending performance in NBA history, maybe in the entire sporting world.
60 points. 23 in the 4th quarter. 50 shots overall. A season-high 42 minutes. And a come-from-behind win over the Utah Jazz at home at Staples Center for a fitting farewell by Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bean Bryant.
The stories surrounding that magical night induced goosebumps.
Shaquille O’Neal said he challenged Kobe Bryant to score 50; instead, “the mother-f—er’ got 60.
On the same night, fan attention wasn’t on this dynasty-in-the-making that was on the cusp of NBA history. Where were you the night the Golden State Warriors won 73 games? The answer? Watching Kobe drop 60.
It was so surreal, there was once a debate whether the Utah Jazz sort of had a hand in Bryant’s feat, a claim quashed by Gordon Hayward, who was assigned the unenviable task of guarding Bryant that game.
Going by his championship-or-bust reputation, Bryant would seemingly have preferred celebrating a title on his final game.
But given the ragtag crew he had been working with the past few years leading up to 2016 and a body that was undeniably feeling the effects of two decades playing top-level basketball, Bryant instead savored Year 20.
Gone were the perpetual scowl and the hard-pushing alpha dog with little patience for mediocrity.
He transformed into a more willing teacher to his younger teammates, and an elder statesman in a league he once terrorized with his unrelenting drive to succeed.
He entered opponents' arenas not really intent on ripping the home team's hearts out; he walked onto enemy floor with a smile, a salute to the fans, a wave, and a mini thank-you speech. The boos and taunts were replaced by video tributes, parting gifts and warm applause.
Judging by metrics alone, though, it was a brutal final season for Bryant.
Heading into the 60-point night, he was averaging 16.9 points on a career-worst 35.5% shooting from the field.
The Lakers, a team trying to transition into the post-Bryant era, had the third-worst record in the league (26-56).
So how Bryant was going to perform on his final game on April 13, 2016, was all up in the air.
Los Angeles 'loves you'
Pre-game, a video tribute to Bryant was played on the Jumbotron suspended from the rafters at Staples Center, ending with the words, “Congratulations on 20 years in the Purple and Gold” emblazoned on the screen.
Individual tributes from former teammates and opponents such as LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony were played before long-time Lakers fan and Hollywood great Jack Nicholson wrapped things up.
“You have been an inspiration to us all and LA loves you,” said Nicholson.
At that point, further chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” rang out from the crowd as Johnson walked across to embrace Bryant and share a few private words.
Bryant then walked out to center court, applauding the fans with his hands raised high, then lifted his right arm in tribute before blowing kisses to the crowd.
After the introduction befitting Bryant's stature, he didn't get off in the most ideal of starts, missing his first 5 shots and committing a turnover.
Then he made his next 5 buckets in a row to finish the opening quarter with 15 points.
He sat out the first 6 minutes of the second quarter, and when he returned to the court he struggled with his shot. He added just 6 more points for 22 at halftime.
The third quarter was up and down. He went 3 of 4 to start the second half, missed his next 4 shots, then made 3 straight, including a 3-pointer that got the deficit down to 5, 64-59, after the Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points. At the end of 3 quarters, he had 37.
A game for the ages
Then something magical happened in the fourth.
After coming up empty in his first three attempts on the floor to start the quarter, Bryant drilled back-to-back 3-pointers.
At the 5:41 mark, he went on a personal 17-point barrage that included a jumper that put the Lakers ahead 97-96 with 32 seconds remaining.
Later, with 15 seconds left, a Trevor Booker foul sent Bryant to the line, where he nailed points No. 59 and 60. The entire Staples Center fell silent as he prepared to shoot his free throws, then erupted when he made both for the seventh 60-point game in Bryant's career.
Final score, Lakers 101, Jazz 96.
Lakers broadcast analyst Stu Lantz gushed: “What a performance, what an exit for No. 24. You couldn’t have written this.”
With a towel draped over his shoulders, Bryant in his on-court post-game address said: “Man, I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by.
“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy to be standing here on the same court with you guys, with my teammates behind me.”
Fellow Lakers great Magic Johnson said of Bryant: “For the last 20 years, this man has been the biggest and greatest celebrity we have had in this town.
“He is not only a great and unbelievable sports icon but he’s also the greatest to wear the purple and gold.”
Bryant threw the love back at the legions of fans who had been behind him since he came into the league as a skinny 18-year-old out of high school.
On this night, he left the game as a 37-year-old with 5 NBA championships and a league MVP, and ranked third all-time in career points.
“I appreciate the journey we have been on, there have been a few ups and downs but the most important part is that we all stayed together throughout,” he said.
“All I can do here is thank you guys for all the years of support, all the years of inspiration. This has been unbelievable. I can’t believe it has come to an end.”
-- With a report from Reuters
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