Today marks six years since Kobe Bryant last played in Atlanta. We should take every opportunity possible to honor the Hall of Famer. So, let's look back at his final game against the Atlanta Hawks on December 4, 2015.
The Los Angeles Lakers arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 3 with a record of 3-16. Despite the lowly Lakers being destined for the NBA draft lottery, the excitement in the city was palpable. The following night would be just the third game since Bryant had announced his upcoming retirement following the 2015-16 season. As always, the Hawks and the city of Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the superstar.
Before sitting down with Ernie Johnson of TNT for the first interview following his retirement announcement, Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, grabbed a meal at The Busy Bee Cafe. It's a truly Atlantan eatery that's been ingrained in the community since it opened in 1947.
The ceremonies began with the Hawks and Zoo Atlanta teaming up to honor Bryant by naming the Zoo's only black mamba snake 'Kobe Bryant.' In addition, the Hawks donated to Zoo Atlanta to further honor Bryant. While zoo officials could not confirm the black mamba's age, he had lived at Zoo Atlanta since 1993 and, at the time of his passing in 2017, was believed to be one of the oldest black mambas living in a zoological setting.
"Zoo Atlanta remembers this well and was proud to be part of this tribute to Mr. Bryant. While Mr. Bryant’s animal namesake, Kobe Bryant the black mamba, is no longer living, we still have many Zoo guests who ask about him. He was a very popular member of our reptile population and was a majestic animal. We were proud to team up with our home team to honor a true sports legend." - Rachel Davis, Director of Communication for Zoo Atlanta
As fans packed into Philips Arena to see the gunslinger one last time, others associated with the Hawks quietly snuck through back hallways to get a little time with the league's biggest celebrity.
"Right in the back of the athletic training room, there's a back entrance. He was set up in his pre-game physical treatment with our physical therapist, Judy Seto, who would spend an hour-plus with him manually working through different parts of his body. I just remember that back door being a revolving door of former Hawks players and current Hawks employees who had a connection with him. It was just a constant line of people wanting to share their sentiments and pay their respects to what he had done in his career.
It always amazed me how he was able to do that during what is prime game preparation time. He was able to so graciously take everybody one at a time. There were a lot of people asking for something signed. He was always happy to do it. He was at a time where he really just embraced the moment, and he was at peace with it all." - Dr. Tim DiFrancesco former Lakers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach
Just 16 seconds into the game, Bryant sent the crowd into a frenzy when he blocked the shot of Thabo Sefolosha. Then, five minutes later, the crafty veteran got a hand on Mike Muscala's shot. By the end of the first quarter, the Hawks led 23-19.
During the break in the action, the Hawks showed a brief video tribute of Bryant. The video ended with Hawks Owner Tony Ressler and commentator Dominique Wilkins thanking Bryant for everything he had done for the sport. Bryant, the consummate competitor, smiled and waved to the capacity crowd but did not watch the one-minute segment.
Bryant finally gave the fans what they wanted in the second quarter when he made his only field goal of the first half. By halftime, Bryant had four points and the Lakers trailed the Hawks 52-36.
The Lakers came out of the locker room hot and outscored the Hawks 30-20 in the third quarter. Bryant nailed consecutive three-pointers at 4:43 and 4:09 from nearly identical spots on the floor. The legend played to the fans by holding up three fingers after each shot. Atlantans gave love to the five-time champion with chants of "Ko-be, Ko-be."
With 4:46 left in the fourth quarter, Bryant knocked down a mid-range shot to cut the deficit to four, 87-83. However, Kent Bazemore and Jeff Teague made several timely plays and the Hawks were able to put the game away late. With less than a minute remaining, Lakers forward Metta World-Peace checked in for Bryant. The Atlanta fans showered Bryant with thunderous applause one last time.
"My biggest takeaway from that night was when the game ended and Kobe seemed genuinely touched by the reaction he got from our fans. He had the biggest smile as he walked off." - Hawks radio announcer Steve Holman
Despite a cold shooting night, Bryant finished the game with 14 points, second to teammate Lou Williams' 18 points. The Hawks took the victory 100-87, thanks to Al Horford's 16 points and 9 rebounds. Hawks players met Bryant at midcourt and hugged it out. One of the first Hawks players to embrace Bryant was Tim Hardaway, Jr., whose father had competed against Bryant two decades earlier.
"Philips was sold out, as usual for the Lakers. What I remember is that Kobe had one of the worst games he ever played here! 4-19? 2-10 on three's? That was such a bad Lakers team." - Hawks television announcer Bob Rathbun
With microphones aimed at him from every direction, Bryant heaped praise upon the city of Atlanta. The 38-year-old told Fox Sports, "I’ve always loved to play here. There’s always so much energy in the building. (Dominique Wilkins) has always been one of my favorite players growing up. There have been so many good players that have played here. The video tribute that they did and even the black mamba at the zoo … that stuff is pretty darn cool."
Following his initial post-game remarks, Bryant navigated through the packed locker room to the podium for an additional media session. Each step of the way was interrupted by well-wishers, admirers, and contemporaries.
"The arena crowd was always heavily favored for the Lakers whenever they were in town. But what I remember the most was: 1) A handful of members of the support staff were actually wearing Kobe jerseys. 2) The post-game press conference room was the most crowded that I had ever seen it before or since, jam-packed with everyone trying to get in there, reporters, staff, even a bunch of former players. 3) When he walked out I said to myself, 'there goes greatness the likes of we’ll probably never see again'.” - Jerome Jurenovich former Hawks television analyst
After leaving Philips Arena for the last time, Kobe and Vanessa enjoyed a late-night meal at Waffle House. The next morning, the Lakers traveled to Washington D.C. for a Sunday game against the Washington Wizards.
Bryant was inactive against the Hawks in March of 2016, making the game from December of 2015 their final matchup. Although they only played twice a season, there was no shortage of great basketball moments between Bryant and the Hawks.
Days like today will always be bittersweet for the basketball world. The only silver lining is that Bryant left an indelible mark on the game and the people he met along the way. The city of Atlanta should be proud of how they competed with and honored one of the best to pick up a basketball.