Monday was a special, and somewhat bittersweet day, not just for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, but for basketball fans worldwide. It was the fifth anniversary of the late Kobe Bryant’s very last game in 2016.
Five years ago, an injury-plagued 20-year veteran of the NBA suited up for his last time in the purple and gold and turned back the clock. Younger fans who only knew him by name got to see a glimpse of him at his prime, as did fans who came up during his struggles with the Lakers in the mid-2000s. Older fans got to reminisce one more time about the second-greatest shooting guard of all time and see him as he once was before injuries took their toll.
Looking back on that moment in NBA history, there is so much to recall. The 60-point performance comes to mind, as does Kobe’s sudden willingness to participate in merch and memorabilia signings. But there are some things that have been forgotten about that game that only adds to its mystique.
So let’s take a walk down memory lane. Here’s what you forgot about the Black Mamba’s last game as a Laker:
1. It started out rough
Kobe Bryant’s last game is primarily remembered for his legendary 60-point outing. A nice, neat, and absurdly high number befitting of one of the most feared scorers in NBA history. However, what many don’t remember is that when the game started, Kobe hanging 60 didn’t look at all likely.
During the early portions of the game, Kobe went 0-5 from the field. Bryant clunked his first five shots of the game. But in typical Kobe fashion, he shot his way out of his cold start to net a cool 15 points over the rest of the first quarter, a sign of things to come. But not to many.
According to this retrospective, Kobe was only really projected to score 30 points. Everyone was planning for that sort of night, a quiet and serene exit for the vet.
So not only did Kobe get himself hot in the most Mamba way ever, but he also outperformed everyone’s expectations. Which brings us to the next forgotten nugget of info:
2. Kobe was having a rough farewell tour
Up until this game, no one really expected Kobe Bryant to pull out such a beautiful vintage performance. His per game scoring average was at 17-points, and his advanced stats were among the worst they’d been since his rookie year. Bryant’s final season was one of only three seasons that the legendary guard chalked up a negative box plus/minus, and between his stats and his recent laundry list of injuries, even 30 points was a bit of a stretch.
Fans hoped, of course. But hope isn’t expectation.
In fact, through the 2015-16 season, Bryant hadn’t even notched 40 points in one single game until his very last game. He pulled out all the stops to truly leave it out on the court one last time.
3. The Lakers won a close one
What many forget outside of the 60-points though is that they weren’t in vain. The Lakers were immeasurably bad that year, and would only amass 17 wins that season. But against perennial playoff contender Utah, Kobe didn’t just torch the opposition, he went out winning in dramatic fashion. Sound familiar?
Late in the game, the Jazz were up by 10 points before Bryant went supernova one last time. His 59th and 60th points were earned in truly clutch fashion at the free throw line to ice a 101-96 win over the Jazz. Which adds to his lore. How many players can say that they really went out on top?
Bryant’s last game wasn’t just a cakewalk either. The Jazz are one of the best defensive teams in the league year-to-year, and they refused to give him anything easy. No doubt Kobe wouldn’t have had it any other way.
4. Magic Johnson proclaimed Kobe as the greatest Laker of all time
Read the retrospective again, courtesy of the LA Times. In the words of Magic Johnson himself, Kobe Bryant is the greatest to ever wear the purple and gold. Debate over.
There you go. Those are the most-forgotten things about Kobe’s final game. Fans who watched it remembered that Kobe looked like the old version of himself, pulling out everything in is bag for what would be tied for his fifth-highest scoring game ever. In remembering these facts, this should remind everyone that Kobe didn’t just pull out the stops for his final game in the purple and gold.
He left as he came in: brash, bold, and absolutely fearless. Like Magic Johnson said, he reminded all of us one last time why he is and will be the greatest Laker of all time. In him is encompassed everything that the Lakers have stood for: all of the glamour, flaws, drive, prestige, and greatness. Kobe Bryant was the type of person who starts off missing, and then ends up with 60 points in a win, hobbling one one leg and with a welded shooting finger.
People say that Kobe Bryant was a mirror image of Michael Jordan. In many ways, he was. But he was also different. He stayed with his team through the good, the bad, and the ugly, and through it all, his beauty was all his own. His game was similar, sure. But fans don’t fade away shooting trash into waste baskets shouting ‘MJ!’.
That is what sets Kobe apart. His brashness, his boldness, all of the flaws and greatness that made him the beautiful legend and human he was were on display that April evening in 2016.
So, looking back on this final victory, do a fadeaway in his honor, and don’t think of Kobe Bryant as the second coming of Michael Jordan. Because he wasn’t.
He was, and will be, the only Kobe Bryant.