The LA Lakers' star said goodbye to the courts on April 13, 2016, with a memorable showing in which he scored 60 points in the win over the Utah Jazz. Behind him, he left a brilliant career with five titles and many nights that left us all in awe.
An unforgettable night
Wednesday, April 13, 2016. The world of sport had its eyes set on California. In the north, in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors were about to set a new record of regular season wins (73). Further south, in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant was about to end his playing career.
We were there. With tickets bought in October, a month and a half before Kobe Bryant officially announced that 2015/16 would be his last season, and after an authentic marathon to guarantee the pickup of the tickets, we were more witnesses than spectators. Yes, because Kobe Bryant did not just play one game. He gave a proof of greatness to which no one could be indifferent.
The following paragraphs are a mixture of the various texts that were written at the time, with everything still warm in my mind, after everything that had happened. Because as much as the strongest memories resist in the brain, there is nothing better than to relive the emotion and that feeling of numbness I felt that night.
A competitive predator
Kobe Bryant, the end. Saying that, in a crude way, seems to take away what he built during his twenty-year career at the highest level, always representing the same team - what is increasingly rarer.
In a sport of enormous demand, Kobe Bryant did not limit himself to an elite athlete. He was a predator, a competitive animal that smelled his prey as if he was in a jungle without being noticed. But he was not. From the age of 17, when he was chosen by the Charlotte Hornets (after the LA Lakers whispered them his name only a few minutes before the moment of truth), Kobe was always a star. Beloved by some, hated by others, he has garnered millions of witnesses.
Until today, April 13. It was the last day. The day when a career full of ups and downs (in which the first ones will always be more memorable) came to... an end. The day the Pico subway station, a few meters from the South entrance of the Staples Center was renamed after him - only for 24 hours. The day the rivals lowered their defenses and recognized the unrivaled quality of an incomparable talent in the NBA.
And the day that tickets bought at $71.50 on Oct. 15 were worth more than 900 in the authorized resale market. It was not a shot in the dark but an anticipation of what was speculated and confirmed at the end of November: Kobe Bryant was going to end his career in April 2016.
The predator had aged. The eyes that stared at the basket with an obsessive will to triumph grew tired. And the group around him became weaker. Where once there was Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, there is now the youth of Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle. They are just that for the moment... promises.
More than his last game, it was a farewell. The last chance that everyone, Lakers fans or not, would have to revive everything Kobe has achieved since 1996, highlighting the five champion titles - the last one in 2010.
Four hours before the start, the central square next to the Staples Center was already crowded. The supporters were not intimidated by the dimension of the homage and brought what they could: Bryant sweaters with the numbers 8 and 24 (both used by the Lakers) but also with the 33, from Lower Merion, the high school from where he left for the NBA.
And for those who had not bring any, there was a plan b. For hawkers, this was a golden opportunity, with t-shirts tailored to the goodbye and some of the striking photographs of Kobe's career.
The Staples Center was also ready for the moment. During the afternoon, dozens of workers slowly lined its outer walls with images of Kobe Bryant and the inscription #ThankYouKobe. In addition, many balloons, inflatables, and endless entertainment spots helped pass the hours. And there was also a Snoop Dogg sight, with his huge entourage, generating the euphoria of those who waited.
Already inside, after an hour in line, there was no doubt about the star of the night. Right at the door, a shower of offers, featuring a book with the best moments and images of Kobe's career. Then, in each seat, a t-shirt dedicated to #mambaday.
The court was also dressed for the occasion. On one side, the number 24, on the other, the 8. As time passed, the giant screen showed career videos.
The cheerleaders had almost no work that night. With each pause, the entertainment was different and the giant screen only had Kobe to show. First with testimonials of old colleagues, then rivals, with appearances of idols from other sports like David Beckham and Novak Djokovic, and North American film stars like Jack Nicholson.
The preparations for the party were so carefully made that Kobe Bryant did not want to disappoint anyone. Especially because before the game he was presented by Magic Johnson as the best player in Lakers history. But the beginning of the game was shaky. He missed some shots and appeared to feel the pressure that he'd defeated so many times in his career.
A blocked shot was the spark that was missing to set fire to the Staples Center crowd and Kobe Bryant himself. The next two hours were unforgettable and are now a part of history. There is the raw way of looking at things - Kobe tried 50 field goals and literally had the team playing for himself - but the side that matters is the romantic one. The one where a player said goodbye after twenty years with 60 points. And a win. Thanks to him, of course, and the way he led the game in the final minutes.
Feeling of smallness
There are moments in life when we feel small compared to what we're seeing. Moments that take our breath away, which make it difficult for us to recognize, in that second, the exact dimension of what is happening.
In the case of Kobe Bryant's farewell, the trance state took hours. By itself, the last game of his career would be special but the player managed to raise the bar in many levels. As if was whispering in our ears, "did you think it was going to be good? I assure you it will be even better."
Just think that this text is being written 12 hours after tipoff and I barely slept. No matter how hard you try, the feeling of having witnessed something unique is transcendent, it invades our state of mind and makes us return to each moment of an unforgettable night.
Like when we thought it might not be so good, when he failed several shots in the beginning, or when we started to do the math to predict how many points he could score. When we hoped he could reach 50 points without even realizing he was on his way to 60.
Kobe Bryant did it. He left us nailed to the ground, but standing. With our legs shaking but standing. On the first, second and third floors of Staples Center. Reviewing the videos made, it is impossible not to notice that when Kobe converted the free throw that gave him the 60th point, the whole arena was standing.
The hidden track on a mythic album
When Kobe Bryant attacked the closing minutes of his last game, the night was already special, but what followed served almost as a hidden track at the end of one of the best albums ever.
And to listen to it, live, without realizing how long the song was or when it would end, is indescribable. It's about putting your hands in your head, looking around, and realizing that everyone has the same question in their heads, "How is this possible?" On the night of April 13, I was not a journalist, I was not a Celtics fan, I was not a basketball fan. I was a witness. In the middle of so many others who had the same fate. Yes, because for us those two and a half hours were a matter of luck.
When he was not on the pitch, the game lost interest. Few where those who cared, and only the prospect of Kobe returning to the court fueled hope. Soon, the 10 points became 20. And the 20 turned in 30. And the 30 turned in 40. Then, in the last period, we all thought the finish line was at 50. After he reached 47, with 3'05" to play, it was impossible to sit again. It was as if in the back of our minds we all knew and felt that history was just around the corner, and no one wanted to miss it. There was only one mistake: we were very much wrong when we thought the round mark would be 50. Kobe, the genial human, became Kobe, the gifted extraterrestrial.
A show must have ups and downs but Kobe sank the logic and raised the incredulous euphoria with each action. He was Mamba, he was King Midas, he was Kobe, a teenager from Pennsylvania with the dream of being the best Laker in history. And every time he held the ball with both hands on the way to the basket, I had no other option than put my own hands in my head, totally overwhelmed.
It's still hard to understand what happened. And to believe it happened. Kobe turned a night that was already special in something impossible to forget. He did not miss a shot again and closed the night with 60 points. But it was not only that: he alone gave one more win, for the last time, to the Lakers. No pressure? On the contrary. What do you think it means to go to the free throw line with 15 seconds to play and with the chance to reach 60 points? In your last game?
Unlike me and everyone else in the arena, Kobe did not tremble. He could not do it. Because Kobe is not from this world, he is special. We are just passing by, we're just witnesses. He is eternal.
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