Kobe Bryant: The Black Mamba’s Last Stand

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) /

The year is 2016. As confetti rains down from the rafters of the Staples Center, Kobe Bryant slowly marches off the court after his final game, drenched in sweat and out of breath.  He has just played the last game of his record-setting career and wowed the crowd of adoring fans.

“Mamba Out,” says Kobe, referencing his nickname The Black Mamba, as he lays down the microphone and walks off the court for the final time after a 60-point finale for the ages. It’s an ending that could only happen in Hollywood.

Bryant’s final season provides insight into the mindset of someone who reached the pinnacle of their craft. Learning how others become the best version of themselves is often how we learn to be the best version of ourselves. What inspired Kobe to persevere through the season and go all out in that final game?

“He was the physically and mentally toughest player I ever worked with,” says Gary Vitti, the Lakers head athletic trainer for Kobe’s entire career. “He took the words ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and replaced them with ‘can’ and ‘will’.”

While many know global icon Kobe Bryant’s final game was legendary, they may not know the story of all the injuries he had to play through and the perseverance it took for him to even perform in that game, let alone score 60 points.

One of the greatest basketball stars in history was playing with a roster of young talent still learning the nuances of basketball, and not yet ready to compete for a championship as Kobe had done countless times before.

On April 13, 2016, the 37-year-old Kobe Bryant became the oldest player to ever score 60 points. But it took an army of trainers and massage therapists to get him ready each time he played that season.

MUST-READ: Ranking the best Kobe Bryant nicknames

Preparation began the night before and continued throughout the day. With a multitude of injuries and aches, Bryant had to have every part of his body massaged, stretched out, or soaked in an ice bath.

Kobe was hampered with injuries that bothered him throughout the year including his right knee, index finger, Achilles heel and right shoulder. If there’s anyone who understands the pain Kobe played through, it is Gary Vitti.

Vitti, interviewed for this article, was with the team from 1984, when Magic Johnson was drafted, until he retired the same night Kobe retired. Vitti was around with Laker greats such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pau Gasol.

But Kobe was different. Kobe had, “The Mamba Mentality”. For anyone associated with the NBA, and for fans around the world, the Mamba Mentality has become synonymous with Kobe Bryant’s legendary work ethic, which his followers are known to apply in all aspects of their crafts.

Bryant described this mentality to his daughters, with a packed audience at Staples Center watching, during his jersey retirement ceremony in 2017. “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. And if you guys can understand that, then what you’ll see happen is that you won’t accomplish your dreams. Your dreams won’t come true, something greater will,” Bryant said in front of the crowd while looking into the eyes of his daughters: 14-year-old Natalia and 11-year-old Gianna.

Bryant became the only player to have two jerseys retired by one franchise. He played the first 10 years of his career wearing number eight, and the second 10 years wearing number 24. Both numbers were plastered on the floor during his final game. The Kobe who retired that night may have been a beloved star and role model for many, but things weren’t always this way.

Kobe Bryant as #8: The Brash Youngster

Tracy Murray played with Kobe on the Lakers from 2002-2003. Then, in Kobe’s last season, he became the team’s assistant coach. Before all of this, though, Murray knew Kobe as a 17-year-old kid who had just arrived in Los Angeles.

Murray was there for the infamous tournament in Venice when then-18-year-old Kobe Bryant was trying to show L.A. that he was the best. Although his opponent was 10 years older and six inches taller, Bryant’s competitive nature wouldn’t let him back down. Murray told Bryant he may hurt himself before his NBA debut, but Bryant wanted to show off his skill in his new city.

Bryant began the preseason sidelined after breaking his wrist from performing a devastating crossover dribble before flying through the air for a slam dunk. It was for reasons like this that Bryant’s nickname in this era was, “Showboat.” But Murray understood that Kobe “wanted to be the best, he wanted to be a champion and winning was the drive behind everything.”

In these early years, children and young people around the globe adored Bryant. In 1998, he became the youngest all-star starter ever at 19 years old. By the time he was 23, Bryant had become the youngest player ever to win three championships.

But there was another side to his greatness. Although he was often seen in public with a smile, Bryant was all business on the court and in the gym.

Bryant’s work ethic is legendary and Murray saw it first-hand. Murray saw that every single day, Kobe was at practice long before the rest of the team arrived. Even though Murray was a veteran, he decided to show up at 7 AM and beat Kobe to practice. This would be four hours before the rest of the team arrived.

When Murray entered the gym, Kobe was already drenched in sweat.

Bryant was hard on himself and he wasn’t the easiest teammate either at this time. He could be as hard on others as he was on himself. Murray recalled how Bryant pushed his teammates’ buttons to make them better players.

He did this the most with Shaquille O’Neal, who was his co-star during those three championships. Shaq and Kobe were a beloved duo and pop culture phenomenon, but they had to be separated from fighting multiple times during their championship run.

Bryant saw how much talent O’Neal had and was frustrated when Shaq would show up out of shape at the beginning of each season. Bryant didn’t understand how someone that talented didn’t want to work as hard as possible to be great.

The media often debated who was the better player, and Bryant and O’Neal’s relationship soured. The Lakers had to pick between the two and went with the younger Bryant. O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat.

Kobe Bryant went through some rough years but would end up scoring 81 points on January 22nd, 2006, the second-highest output in NBA history. He had clearly become the NBA’s best player, but the self-proclaimed talented overachiever had more to prove.

#24: An Evolved Kobe Bryant

Starting a new chapter in his career, Kobe Bryant switched numbers in the 2006-2007 season. The Black Mamba had evolved from number 8 to number 24.

Kobe now had to win championships without O’Neal. Many said it couldn’t be done, but Bryant won two more to become a five-time champion.

Murray said that part of Kobe’s evolution was becoming a better teammate.

“You saw him become a leader. You saw him become more trusting. You saw him care for his teammates more,” Murray says.

Even though Bryant’s star began to rise in 1998, arguably the best stretch of his career came 15 years later. He guaranteed the Lakers would make the playoffs after a slow start to the 2012-2013 season. Singlehandedly willing them into position to compete for his sixth championship, Kobe played more minutes than almost anyone else in the league when he was 34 years old.

Bryant hit multiple difficult three-point shots and made ferocious dunks to win games that seemed all but lost. Even though Kobe’s mentality was unstoppable, his body had limits. He was having another spectacular game, looking like no one could stop him, when he tore his Achilles tendon on April 12, 2013, during the fourth quarter.

Bryant tried to fix the tendon and continue playing. With tears in his eyes, Bryant walked to the foul line to shoot free throws for the Lakers, sinking both shots. Although Kobe’s prime ended that day, it set the stage for his final season.

The Final Season: A Legend’s Farewell

Kobe Bryant’s final season also was the worst season in Lakers franchise history. It was the worst season for a team that had made 31 NBA Finals appearances and rarely missed the playoffs.

“Because Kobe knew this was the card he was dealt, he was trying to find another way to win,” said Mark Medina who covered Kobe’s final season for the Los Angeles Daily News and attended nearly every press conference. “The definition of winning became to play through the season without a season-ending injury.”

It was jarring to see the five-time champion who had a win-or-bust mentality, who was also one of the greatest players of all time, play his final year with the goal of just getting through.

“To go 20 years, especially with the miles he had on him with all those extra games and championships… he’s not indestructible and very few guys have gotten to year 20,” says Howard Beck, who covered Kobe for the Los Angeles Daily News and now, after writing for the New York Times, is with Sports Illustrated.

“He wasn’t going to let the Achilles take him out. He was going to go out on his own terms. He could have bowed out at any point and said that’s it, but Kobe was only going to go out on Kobe’s terms.”

Beck was impressed with Kobe’s dedication to still get out of bed at 6 AM so he could perform at a certain level.

“You have to work that much harder, when you get into your mid to late 30s, to function in the NBA in an effective way at all,” Beck explained. “The resilience is in being there at all and on top of that still having some memorable performances and coming back from the series of injuries, especially the Achilles.”

When asked about the difficulties of Kobe’s last season, Tracy Murray raised another point. Kobe was used to having veteran talent around him, but that year was different. The Lakers were no longer perennial championship juggernauts. Rather the team was looking to build young talent for the future.

“Kobe was playing with a bunch of young kids who are talented but don’t know how to play yet,” Murray said.

He added that the younger players were often on their phones and had to be pushed to work hard.

“Kobe said he didn’t understand any of it, because when he was a young guy coming in, he was a worker,” Murray said. “He outworked everybody. It was like they were speaking two different languages on the court.”

It may have taken all day and night to get Kobe ready for games, but he wanted to go on the court and compete every time he played.  Murray says that Kobe was sometimes rusty because he had to miss practices to get his body worked on. His days were spent getting a variety of massages, stretching, taking ice baths and other types of physical therapies that could help a 20-year veteran who’s given everything to the game.

When Kobe couldn’t be the player fans expected, he knew it was time to walk away. On November 29th, 2015, he released a retirement poem called “Dear Basketball.”

“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,” he wrote for what became an Academy-Award winning screenplay.

And so began Bryant’s farewell tour, even though he previously said that he didn’t want one. “If he didn’t have that set of circumstances where the team was losing and he was injured, he wouldn’t have had a farewell tour,” said Medina. “In a weird, twisted way, the losing softened him a bit because he knew his sheer will and talent can’t change this because it’s so dire to find a different way to win.”

Coming off three consecutive season-ending injuries, nothing was fully healed and Kobe played through the pain every game. He made sure the show would always go on.

The first magical moment of the Mamba’s farewell tour was when he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia for the Lakers’ first road game since he penned his retirement poem.

Kobe played high school basketball at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. He was one of the first players ever to be drafted straight into the NBA from high school. But his relationship with his hometown was complex.

Local fans booed Kobe when he won the all-star game MVP in 2002 because he played for Los Angeles. He beat Philadelphia for his second championship the previous year.

Before the game, he was honored with a customized high school jersey from his high school coach Gregg Downer and Philadelphia basketball legend Julius Erving. The same fans that booed Kobe now cheered every time he got the ball.

“It was so emotionally draining because he was so used to getting hate in other cities and feeding off that,” says Serena Winters, who covered the Lakers for six years, including Kobe’s final season.“Nineteen years of hate was turning into love for him in his final year.”

He had finally become the beloved hero. He out-worked everyone for 19 years, and it was time to enjoy the journey… until the last game.

The Final Game: The Black Mamba’s Last Stand

“That game still goes down for me as the best sports experience I have ever been a part of and I was there for Game 7 of the 2010 Finals as well,” said Winters. “It really felt like he had to push himself through each game of that final season, but even more when you look at the final game of that season.”

The scene was wild outside as well as inside. The Lakers had set up what some called, “Kobe Land,” the Kobe Bryant equivalent of Disneyland. Downtown’s streets were closed off, a giant, inflatable Kobe Bryant hovered over the pavement, 50-foot photos of Kobe covered every inch of the Staples Center, and TVs showing his career highlights were on every corner.

“The Lakers are LA. Now you have a guy that was there 20 years and everybody saw him grow up from 17 to 37,” says Tracy Murray. “If you were a kid, you grew up with him. If you were an adult, you grew older watching this kid grow up.”

Kobe Bryant was not just an icon in Los Angeles but around the globe. Even if they couldn’t afford tickets, fans flew from all over just to be downtown in Los Angeles that night. Fans from around the world even waited in line to pen a special message to Kobe on giant Styrofoam boards outside the arena.

“It was such a culmination of what he had been pushing himself through,” says Winters. But the game did not start out well for Kobe. “I remember in that first quarter, thinking to myself,  ‘he’s missing a bunch of shots. He looks tired out there.’ Then it quickly turned.”

After missing his first five shots, Kobe immediately zoned in, hitting five shots in a row. As the second half began, he got to 40, then 50, even though most expected 20 points at best.

Once he got to 60, most of the media were on their feet, dumbfounded at what they’d witnessed. “As a media member, you don’t show your emotion, It was a storybook ending as he once again did the unthinkable. He turned us all into little kids,” recalls Winters.

When Kobe’s body was broken down, what made him put on such an incredible performance?

“Winning was the drive behind everything. He hated losing. He did not want to lose his last game. So he found something deep inside to push,” Murray says. “He was exhausted after that game.”

Bryant was gasping for air even as he gave the final moments everything he had. In typical Kobe fashion, he hit the game-winner. He hadn’t scored this many points since his prime.

“Kobe’s last game was played on adrenaline,” says Vitti. “He played it like it was his last game because it was”.

After the game, Kobe Bryant took the microphone and thanked fans for sticking through the good years and the bad. He looked over at his family and thanked them. He was the hero of the night, inspiring everyone with his perseverance this one last time.

The Mamba was out, as Kobe proclaimed, showered in a bath of purple and gold confetti. There was magic in the air with celebrities and former teammates, including Shaquille O’Neal, all being wowed one final time.

On January 26th, 2020, Kobe Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven other victims. The world was shaken as they remembered the man whose impact reached across the globe.

Kobe Bryant's best game vs. every NBA team. dark. Next

In the first Lakers game since the tragedy, Kobe Bryant’s former rival LeBron James said, “In the words of Kobe Bryant, ‘Mamba Out,’ but in the words of us, ‘Not forgotten.’ Live on Brother.”