Kobe Bryant went out on his own terms Wednesday: Shooting, scoring and leading the Lakers to a win with his season-high 60 points.
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Kobe Bryant could only go out shooting. That much was non-negotiable; the Lakers intended to feed their living legend whenever possible in the final game of his basketball career, and Bryant would need to defy his every instinct to pass up their invitation. Away they went—pullups, turnarounds, runners, heat checks and desperation heaves—until Bryant ended the night with 60 points ... on a career-high 50 shot attempts.
This remains the season of the Warriors, a fact made certain by Golden State’s record-setting 73rd win on Wednesday night. Yet even that unbelievable achievement was upstaged by the NBA’s most dramatic star gunning away to the last. For 42 minutes, six more than planned, Bryant piled up points and authored a comeback victory all his own. This wasn’t a perfect performance or anywhere near Bryant’s best. It was, however, the perfect culmination of a career defined by its relentless pursuit of excess. One more title. One more record. One more season. One more moment.
Bryant took and took throughout his career in part because of all he had given. “I gave everything I possibly could to the game,” Bryant told ESPN in a postgame interview. “That’s why I’m so comfortable walking away from it. I bared my soul to this game. There’s no stone left unturned. I left it all here.”
There were shots and plays in Kobe’s finale worth remembering, though the most memorable scenes might turn out to be a step removed. During every timeout in the Lakers’ 101–96 victory, Bryant would retreat to the bench for meditation as a tempest swirled around him. The Staples Center screens lit up all throughout the night with images of Kobe’s past and the arena echoed with praise of his influence. After his career had reached its close, Bryant hugged his way through rows of friends and former teammates, his face joyful in a way that even championships hadn’t earned. Bryant took the mic at the end of it all, pacing nervously as he addressed the home crowd one final time.
“You guys will always be in my heart,” Bryant said. The crowd swelled. It was a warm send-off for one of the iciest competitors the league has ever seen.
Bryant’s final season had carried throughout it a funereal air. Opponents at every stop would pay their respects and offer gifts, regardless of whether Kobe was actually in uniform. This was the first time in months that the farewell campaign felt like a true, unforced celebration. None could begrudge Bryant enjoying it on his own terms—not on a night in which his performance was all that really mattered. It wasn’t even an issue that Bryant coasted through defensive possessions with convenient switching and standstill swiping. Fundamentals are for those concerned with building something to last. This night never could, though Bryant did everything in his incredible power to render his finish timeless.
Damn if he didn’t succeed.