Sometimes in life things happen that you can’t explain. There could be things that you see, or even experience that could make a person think that maybe, just maybe, they’re going crazy. Whether it’s deja vu, or seeing a pattern of events, sometimes, those things linked together can get the gears in ones head turning. That’s how I felt tonight. The day has been full of things happening that have somehow been strung together that has felt odd. While I’m not one to believe in weird conspiracies often, when a string of coincidences happen I tend to notice. I knew that when I went outside my house in the evening, that things were off. The lights in my neighborhood had been flickering every night for the past six years. When the lights had gone out way back when, the city came in within a few days and replaced the blown out lights. That very first night the lights began to flicker and turn off every few minutes. For six years straight this cycle would repeat itself, over and over, without end, until tonight. When I walked outside my home around 6pm, I noticed that those lights. Those damned lights, had finally blown out. After years of dealing with that weird business, it was finally over. But, while that was strange, it was the fact that it happened on the eve of something else that made me wonder. What was it about that that made me think it was more than a coincidence?
On the eve of an event that I had been anticipating for over a year, those street lights blowing out made me think of coincidences, and sports. Today, after a twenty year career, one of the greatest athletes to have ever played the game of basketball was about to retire. A storied career full of highlights, record breaking and an overall amazing story, Kobe Bryant, was poised to make one more mark the amazing run that he had. The build up leading to this game was enormous. Ever since Kobe first announced his retirement, the news has been flooded with updates on his game to game progress. It was, for all intents and purposes, one of the biggest news stories of the year. Sadly though, it was also something that a lot of us saw coming. With a rash of rough injuries the past few years, Kobe has struggled to play like he once did in his younger, Championship years. While this is an excuse that even Kobe himself would scoff at, it was pretty apparent that his long career would at some point be coming to an end. So, with the season winding down, the anticipation to that last game was growing. Every day the media would go on about Kobe’s last appearance in whichever stadium, and each night, the reaction was the same, if not even bigger. Fans and foes alike would pay their respects to the living legend, and would end every game with a farewell. Some teams (such as the Bulls) went so far as to pay their respects by presenting the Mamba with an homage to his time playing the game. Then they added a part in that video where his old buddy and former teammate (Pau Gasol) gave him a shoutout. This is just how this year has gone, and we all knew that as the season would come to a close, that the tension and excitement of seeing this spectacular player would build.
This night was sure to be something special, and when I saw how crazy my neighborhood looked that evening, I saw it almost as a premonition. When those lights went out, I thought to myself, maybe it’s a sign of the Mamba himself. Maybe it was a sign of what would come at that final game. I know. How cheesy is that? Well, the thought definitely crossed my mind. After having the worst record in the teams’ history, the Lakers were going to need something more than a sign to make an impact that night. At an abysmal record of 16 and 65 (win to loss record for the season), it was pretty hard to be a Laker fan this year. Maybe it’s the fact that the Lakers have an astonishing 16 career championships (just one less than their cross country rival, the Boston Celtics) that we have become accustomed to winning. Because of that, fans like myself, have found this season to be particularly hard to watch. While that was bad enough, to me, one of the worst things to happen this year, was learning that Kobe was going to retire. At the end of this season and with twenty (yes, twenty) years under his belt, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world would be hanging up his jersey. It was an announcement that a lot of us saw coming, but, maybe did not expect like that. It was also on the heels of that terrible season, that the loss seemed even deeper. It was from that moment on that the season went from being the worst season of all time for the Lakers, to Kobe’s retirement year. I don’t know whether it was a brilliant piece of social engineering or one of the most blatant works of media spin, but, for what it was worth, we knew at that moment that this season would at least have one redeeming factor. After twenty years of the Kobe era, we were going to be treated (for better or worse) to the last hurrah of the great Kobe Bryant.
Since that last game, things changes within the Laker organization were already taking place, and these changes were to go far beyond Kobe. Coach Byron Scott has already been let go, and will no longer return as a Laker head coach. While that deal had very little to do with Kobe, the team is going through changes that will showcase a new team and probably even management. Whatever the case, it’s sure going to be interesting to see what happens after this years’ season.
As the season went on though, and the amount of games dwindled, the anticipation of seeing Kobe play that last game was through the roof. And after months of waiting, on the night of April 13th, we finally got to that moment. Just getting up to that moment was already surreal. After all, I was just barely out the door when I saw the lights on my street were out, and it was then I knew that something was about to go down. Thankfully it didn’t involve me getting mugged on the way to see the game. But, whatever the case, the last game of the season, and the last appearance of Kobe Bryant would take place at the Staples Center in LA, and would be a match between the Lakers and Utah Jazz. Leading up to the game the buzz surrounding tickets and ticket prices was incredible. Tickets to a Lakers game are not particularly cheap. With even the cheapest tickets going at around $100, the tickets to this game would be even more so. Things are worth only what someone is willing to pay for them, and in this case, even the thought of some of those cheap tickets would become out of range for most people. Tickets that were once $100 or more were now peddling for several thousand dollars. One thing about Kobe that a lot of great athletes have is international appeal. Having grown up in Italy and played with some of the best from around the planet, Kobe has earned a level of respect and admiration from athletes all over. As it stood, when I was in Spain several years back, one of the funniest conversations I had ever had was with a local talking about his love for the Lakers, Pau Gasol and Kobe. It was easy to see then, and if you had ever followed sports that the feeding frenzy that took place for tickets to this game was immense. So that night of April 13th, people were expecting not just the Mamba himself, but, the game winning drive that he brought to every match. And knowing Kobe, this was sure to be much more than a simple game.
Before the game, Kobe was given an emotional introduction by another Laker Great, Magic Johnson. That introduction led to a video of tributes to the Mamba. Not only were past Lakers given a moment to give a send off to the man himself. Even permanent Laker fan and LA icon Jack Nicholson made an appearance in the video to show love to Kobe. It was a series of moments that paid tribute to a fixture of basketball and a living legend. It was touching to say the least, and when you could see the smile on Kobe’s face during the event, you knew that he was happy as can be. Everyone was there. Laker greats past and present, celebrities and icons of Hollywood. For Kobe though, most important was seeing his wife and daughters there to watch him. The motivation and support he was to have at this game was in full force. For those fans that paid the extraordinary amount of money would not be disappointed. Like a script straight from the silver screen, the night would prove to be an event so exciting, that even the most jaded Kobe rival had to get swept up in the excitement of the night. The funniest moments had to involve Snoop Dogg, whom, every time the camera pointed over to him, was caught dancing up a storm. It was telling of the atmosphere at Staples Center.
Within the first few minutes of the game, it was pretty clear that Kobe was not going to bow out without a fight. He played every game to win, and this game, while not important as a regular season game, meant a lot to fans and he alike. This was Kobe’s last moment to shine, and you knew that it was going to be amazing. That first quarter started fast and furious, and Kobe came out swinging. Perhaps there was a mandate by the team, but, I think the players, just like the fans wanted to see Kobe do something special. It was obvious in that every time on of the Lakers would rebound or win the ball, the goal was to pass it or assist Kobe in scoring. The crowd would egg him on as well, and nearly every shot that he took that night was going in. Throughout the game the announcers kept saying that this looked like vintage Kobe. I think that Kobe we saw that night was more than that. He was playing at a level that was above and beyond what we had seen in a long while, and that continued all the way until the final buzzer. It was a fantastic to see. As the minutes went on the crowd grew louder and louder, and the points were mounting. 10, 20, 30 points and counting, and pace that Kobe had was not letting up. Could it be that we were going to see another bullet on Kobe’s long list of records?
By the time the fourth quarter had come around, the crowd was on their feet and chanting, “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”. All eyes on the basketball court and around the world were watching the great playmaker work his magic, and nothing or no one would get in his way. At every run up or down the court, Kobe would juke and weave, and leave his opponents stunned. Nearly every shot that he took that night was different than the last, and nearly every shot went in. It was almost as if the shots were being guided by the crowd itself. As the crowd grew louder, the shots came in more frequently, never failing, and always heading in the direction of the basket. It was a peak into the near bottomless bag of tricks that Kobe had stored all these years. The layups, the three-pointers and every bank shot looked like Kobe was giving the fans a taste of his greatest hits and with every basket that went in, the crowd went even more bonkers. With only minutes to spare, Kobe had already surpassed forty points and was well on his way to make it to fifty. When Kobe reached fifty with less than five minutes to go, everyone at the game and the bar I was at watching the game had their faces glued to the television set. With every passing second, Kobe looked more and more winded. He was putting everything into this game, and for once, it was all to visible in his face and on his body. He was in agony. You could tell that every play was taking a toll on him, and knowing that this was his last game, he was going to give it his all. I think that both the fans and Kobe would have never expected anything less. Even though we knew what to expect from Kobe after all these seasons, there was a sense of urgency on his part to make sure that this last showing would be even more extravagant.
And then, something incredible happened. With less than a minute to go, and everyone at the Staples Center on their feet, Kobe had accomplished the unthinkable. At 37 and playing his last game, any other person would be more than happy to bow out gracefully. Unfortunately for Kobe, he’s Kobe Bryant, and even he knows that you have only one chance to make an impression, and if it’s going to be your last, then, you better make the most of it. With less than a minute in the game, Kobe would make his last basket ever and hit a whopping sixty points. This achievement would make it the sixth game in his playing history that Kobe would score at least sixty points in. Not to mention he would also become the oldest player in NBA history to reach that as well. But, the moment that sealed the deal for me wasn’t making that last free throw, rather it was what came out in his last play. The Jazz had turned over the ball after missing an easy shot, and the ball was quickly passed over to Kobe. I think everyone was expecting Kobe to set up his next attack run, but, that wasn’t what ended up happening. In an instant, after getting the rebound, Kobe passed the ball to the other side of the court to fellow teammate Jordan Clarkson for an easy slam dunk. It may not seem like much, but, at the time that it happened, I saw that play as something symbolic. Kobe could have easily set up for one of his breakaways, but, instead he opted to pass the ball along for someone else. And wouldn’t you know, right after that play, the Lakers would call in a substitute, and that would officially become Kobe’s last play ever. In one instant, the end of a two decades long career would be over.
Just like that, the career of an NBA superstar would be over. It would be easy to think that we may one day see a player just as, if not better than he. But, the truth is, that there will never be another Kobe Bryant. Unlike other basketball players, Kobe has an international appeal, and understands that to the fullest. His legacy was cemented in not just the sport itself, but, in pop culture and beyond. He had become the brand and icon that everyone wanted to be associated with. From international soccer players like (Lionel) Messi to heads of state, Kobe would live on to see another day and being so recognizable the demand for his presence would always be there. So, while seeing that last game was invigorating and somewhat bitter sweet, we know that there will be plenty more to come from Kobe. Even before he has announced his retirement he was already working on a line of sports drinks (named BodyArmor) and building up his company. But I will say this. To see that last game, and to walk into it knowing that the day was already something special made it even more memorable watching things unfold as they did. What better way than to go out on top. Sometimes that last memory of you can be the first thing that people remember most of all. And if that was Kobe’s intentions, then he definitely delivered on it. This is one chapter that may be closed on this icon, but, definitely not the last. While it has only been a few days since that last match, the game already misses him.
Words and Photos By Daniel Navarrete
For more information on The Los Angeles Lakers, check out their website at http://www.nba.com/lakers/