Los Angeles: Entering the fourth quarter of their last game of the season, the Lakers were down, again. But inside Los Angeles’s Staples Center on April 13, 2016, that didn’t really matter. Fans in the seats and the millions tuning into broadcasts of the game were watching for one reason: to witness Kobe Bryant’s final night in gold and purple.
Five months earlier, Bryant — then 37 and one of basketball’s most decorated players — announced that he would be retiring from the sport after the 2015-16 season. He shared the news in a short poem titled ‘Dear Basketball’, which went on to inspire an Oscar-winning animated short. It’s difficult to watch now, knowing how his story ended on Sunday.
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream / And I’ll always love you for it / But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
Memories of Bryant’s last moments on the court came rushing back, after the five-time NBA champion, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas in California on Sunday. Bryant was 41. Amid countless tributes from fans, fellow athletes, celebrities and politicians, thousands remembered his professional career, which ended in Los Angeles, where it began.
Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and three other daughters were not aboard the aircraft, which was reportedly on the way to a youth basketball tournament in which Gianna, known as Gigi, would be playing.
The incident sent shock waves throughout the sports and pop culture worlds, and several NBA teams took 24-second and eight-second violations during Sunday’s games to commemorate Bryant’s jersey numbers with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” former NBA superstar Michael Jordan said. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”
Indeed, Bryant’s final season in the game was both fierce and tough: he had weathered a series of injuries during his lengthy career with the Lakers, but the brutal damage he endured in his last few years finally put an end to his game. He battled ankle sprains and eventually snapped his Achilles’ tendon.
This season is all I have left to give / My heart can take the pounding / My mind can handle the grind / But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
In sports and in life, Bryant was an individual whose tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition.
Known late in his career by the nickname ‘Black Mamba’, Bryant was one of the smoothest and most dangerous shooters in a league previously dominated by Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. When those players retired or their talents faded, Bryant took up their mantle. The 6ft, 6ins shooting guard was named to the NBA’s all-star team in 18 of his 20 seasons, all with the Lakers, and he twice led the league in scoring. He scored 81 points during a game in 2006, the second-highest total in a game in league history.
“Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act,” said former president Barack Obama, who along with former first lady Michelle Obama, Bryant referred to as friends in 2018. “To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents.”
So we both can savour every moment we have left together / The good and the bad / We have given each other / All that we have.
In the years since his retirement in 2016, Bryant found a road back into the game, discovering the joy of it all over again, this time through the eyes of his second-born daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, known as Gigi. Bryant might not have wanted to be an NBA coach, but he was happy to patiently bring the hardwood lessons he’d learnt to Gigi’s side.
At 13, Gigi had hoop dreams, hoping to one day play for the University of Connecticut. In a 2018 interview, Bryant, the father of four daughters, spoke with special pride about Gigi. “This kid, man,” he said. “The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me, and she’ll be standing next to me.”
I’ll always be that kid / With the rolled up socks / Garbage can in the corner / Ball in my hands / 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1.
Gathered around a steadily growing cluster of candles, flowers, balloons and other memorabilia on Sunday night, some of Bryant’s fellow Newport Beach residents shared their memories of the man called Mamba.
They spoke of Kobe the father whose dedication and love were apparent to any who came across him. They spoke of Kobe the idol whose accomplishments were legion. But they also spoke of Kobe the man whose fame never got in the way of him sharing a warm greeting at the local grocery store.
Steve Alford, 57, was among those who recalled running into Bryant at a local Starbucks. “He wasn’t anybody special in his mind when he was walking in the store, and it was just really, really refreshing,” he said.
Way back in 2016, after the final buzzer in his last game, a still-sweating Bryant gave an emotional farewell to the stadium and fans watching at home and around the world. “This has been absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s come to an end. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” he said, just before dropping the microphone onto the polished court floor.