LOS ANGELES — One last time, the chant reached a thunderous volume inside Staples Center as 18,997 fans embraced and exhorted their basketball idol in his final game:
“Ko-be Ko-be Ko-be.”
They got it.
Boy, did they get it.
Kobe Bean Bryant walked away from the NBA in about the most Kobe way possible — he scored 60 points, he shot the ball fearlessly (contested or not, just like always) and hit the dagger shots (a three to give the Lakers a lead with 59 seconds left), leading the Lakers to a win over Utah.
“The thing that had me cracking up all night long was the fact I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball, then on the last night they’re like ‘don’t pass it,'” Kobe said with a laugh, addressing the crowd after the game.
It was a night about passion in Los Angeles. It was where Kobe’s passion for and dedication to the game was celebrated. And it was a night that Lakers’ fans’ passion for Kobe was abundantly evident — from the volume inside Staples Center, the signs and the people in tears, to the thousands outside the building on the street who just wanted to be in the area on this night.
“I can’t believe this happened, this is crazy to me,” Kobe said of his final evening in a Lakers’ uniform. “There’s no way I could possibly imagine this happening. I’m just deeply honored by the fans, to be able to put on that kind of show for them, for them, because of all the support they have given me, because of how we grew up together, fans who have been coming here since Day 1. So to give them this type of show in the last one means everything.”
Those fans wanted to celebrate one of the greatest Lakers of all time and one of the greatest players of all time — five titles, third all-time on the NBA scoring list, an MVP and two Finals MVP, 18 All-Star Games, and the list goes on and on. It was the night where a guy who had spent a 19-year career fostering a reputation as a villain was celebrated as a hero. Kobe said for all of his career, at least up until this season when the smiles came out, he embraced that hatred from opposing fans (and a few in L.A.).
“(The hatred) was extremely necessary, because that is what I fed off of,” Bryant said. “At that time, to be embraced, that would have been like kryptonite for me. The darkness, those dark emotions, that’s what I used to drive me.”
This night, he rode the wave of love to one of his highest scoring games ever. Who cares if it took 50 shots, this wasn’t about efficiency, it was about the spectacle and the story. People wanted to see vintage Kobe — the pull-ups, the jumpers over a double-team that would get a normal player benched. This was a 37-year-old man who by the end of the game was completely gassed, but was still taking over an NBA game.
His final game was Kobe’s sixth 60-point game of his career, but it didn’t feel like it would be anything like that early. Kobe seemed off, and the game itself was just a sloppy mess.
The fans were desperate to cheer anything Kobe, groaning with every miss when he started 0-of-5 from the floor, his jumper hitting the front rim. But defense sparked offense — he stripped Gordon Hayward, which was followed by a bucket on the other end — and the building erupted. After that Kobe knocked down a jumper. Then drew an and-1 driving the lane.
That’s when the “Ko-be, Ko-be” chants started.
Soon after came a couple of threes and it sounded like an NBA Finals game in Staples.
The fans only wanted one thing — and Kobe was more than willing to oblige. Especially as his teammates kept feeding him the rock and setting screens to get him space.
“We switched a lot of things, and he got some good looks, he got some tough looks,” Utah’s Gordon Hayward said. “I think for the most part we played pretty decent defense on him. He didn’t get too many easy buckets, but that’s Kobe.”
“I’ve never seen it, never witnessed it, never been a part of something like that…” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “That man gave everything he had for 20 years, and he did it again tonight.”
In doing so, Kobe created a new part of his legend.
Which is all the fans had wanted to see one last time.