Jay C. Brandriet
It was only 26 months ago. Kobe Bryant’s final game was a bit more than another one of his gems. I know this is a guy who has played in the NBA Finals for a living. He’s bailed out a team in an Olympic gold medal game. He once scored 55 points in a half. Because of some unique circumstances, I believe this was the finest moment of his illustrious career.
These are the factors I’m considering:
WHO WERE KOBE AND THE LAKERS IN 2016?
The Lakers were horrible. This was a 16-65 group stuck in mud. Kobe had his moments that year. Just moments. There were eight or nine games where he played very well. Facts are his body was shot from injury and basketball mileage on his legs. He had become what I’d feared most…a gunner who could no longer shoot well. Bryant’s efficiency was disgusting for an NBA starter. Two days before his last game, he shot 4-12 and scored 13 points at Oklahoma City. He sat after 19 minutes with his body covered in bandages and ice. This had become a typical scene.
THE UNIQUE STAGE THIS GAME PROVIDED
Not everyone knows whether or not it’s their last game. In this case, we all knew for the majority of the season when Kobe would lace them up one more time. If healthy, he would finish April 13th 2016, in Los Angeles playing Utah. As the date approached it was obvious this was going to be an epic happening. This was a rare, high-profile evening built around seeing a specific player in a swan song. The stage was bigger than the game. It was like the Oscars at a pro basketball game. It felt like the Super Bowl of Kobe.
THE LAKERS OPPONENT THAT NIGHT
The Utah Jazz had known for just a short while that they had been eliminated from the playoff race. With injuries and resting guys, this was certainly a short-handed Utah team. It’s still the Utah Jazz. They are one of Kobe’s fiercest rivals and are well coached by Quin Snyder. This crew from Salt Lake City handed Bryant his biggest ever loss just two weeks earlier. Utah rocked the Lakers by 48 points while Kobe scored one lonely bucket. Utah and L.A. fans agree, this matchup is always personal.
MY EXPECTATIONS FOR KOBE IN THE FINALE
The scenario I’d hoped for Bryant was to score 21 points on poor shooting. I thought the Jazz would win by 16 or 17. My biggest goal as a fan, was that he did not embarrass himself. We learned later, that Shaq (sitting court side) challenged him to score 50.
HOW KOBE PLAYED AND HOW THE GAME TURNED OUT
Number 24 came out swinging and missed his first five field goal attempts. The Jazz were controlling the game and it looked like a familiar sight for these Lakers. Bryant kept firing like never before and something awesome happened. Things went from everyone wondering how many points he would score in this loss, to the realization that he had pushed the Lakers to a stunning come from behind victory.
In the last three minutes of the game he scored 15 points hitting his final five shots, four free throws and added a dime. In total he scored 60 points (38 in the second half), had 4 rebounds, 4 assists, a block and a steal. He out scored the Jazz himself in the fourth quarter 23-21. With intense pressure to perform, he was prime Kobe because the occasion called for it.
WHY THE IMPACT OF THIS GAME IS EXTRA SPECIAL
I’m not being a prisoner of that last moment. I saw Kobe play more than 1,300 times. He’s done way bigger and badder things over his journey. There was something different about this one. Did you see Kobe at the podium after the game? He was giddy like a child at recess, but he was in actual shock. Even with all the player has done, knowing he had a group of guys spoon-feeding him shots, he could not believe how things had turned out. It was like the “sports Gods” doing a major favor, for a guy that did not need one.
I knew Kobe would be a legend the second I saw his eyeballs. He took over a Finals game as just a 21 year old in 2000. Shaq fouled out in overtime and Bryant said, “I got you”. I was not surprised. When he out scored the Mavericks 62-61 through three-quarters in 2005, I felt it brewing the day before. For the first time, this guy did something I did not think he was capable of. I was a “Kobe doubter” for one night and he burned me. I was in shock with you Mamba. People always talk about first impressions. Kobe just proved how you say goodbye matters as well.
On his last basketball breath, in a game that called for him to be high-caliber regardless of circumstance…,he pulled off maybe his smoothest trick. He then got on the microphone, to give a speech that ended with “What can I say-Mamba out!” Even at his worst, Kobe pulled off his best.
Jay C. Brandriet