Kobe Bryant: My experience attending Kobe’s final game 5 years later

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waves to the crowd as he is taken out of the game after scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waves to the crowd as he is taken out of the game after scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

There’s a certain magic that only happens when a group of people are in a like-minded space together like on April 13th, 2016. This was the day I flew from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to Los Angeles, California the day after finishing my business degree to go see my childhood hero Kobe Bryant’s final game.

The story of the Black Mamba’s final game has been told time and time again. But it’s time to tell my story of going to this game and what it was like to actually be there with thousands of people all celebrating one man who had given us all a lifetime of inspiration.

One of the most amazing aspects was not only that I had followed Kobe’s entire career, but that I watched all 82 games of Kobe’s final season. I would even watch games Kobe didn’t play in to keep up with the storyline.

What’s truly the most amazing? I had no idea that I would actually be attending Kobe’s final game while watching this whole season, let alone his entire career, until the day before after I finished my last exam.

Of course, I rocked my Kobe jersey to this final exam. Kobe represents so much to so many and through this article, I hope to evoke some of the feelings of what Kobe represented to all of us in all our crafts and stages of life. So, before we get to the final game I’ll provide a bit more context.

Pregame of Kobe Bryant’s final game:

When I was three years old in 1996, I saw Space Jam and was hooked on the inspiration of sports once Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes beat the Monstars. When you’re that young, it literally feels as though guys like Mike can fly through the air.

However, MJ was nearly on his way out and I was wondering who my Michael Jordan would be that I get to grow up with. That’s when Kobe Bryant was drafted and one of my first memories involved an announcer saying something along the lines of, “Kobe Bryant is now the youngest player to ever check into an NBA game at 18 years old.”

When I was in preschool, this resonated with me and by the time Kobe faced MJ in the all-star game on February 8th, 1998 (also my fifth birthday) I was hooked. Kobe was the youngest all-star starter in history, but earned the respect of the greats.

To be at Kobe Bryant’s final game was truly incredible as thousands of fans from across the globe had all gathered to pay respect to their hero. There were even gigantic whiteboards where this massive collection of Kobe enthusiasts were all lining up to write personal messages to Kobe Bryant.

I wrote my own message thanking Kobe for inspiring me from preschool to the day after I finished my business degree at 23 years old. It was essentially an outdoor Kobe convention with everyone dressed up in their Kobe Bryant gear.

People were at their absolute friendliest all there to discuss Kobe no matter what race, economic background, or age you were. It was essentially like Disneyland for Kobe as there were giant inflatable Kobe’s, enormous pictures of young and old Kobe on the outside of Staples Centers, and humungous TVs playing Kobe highlights to crowds of adoring fans.

Kobe and Shaq became enigmatic figures mentioned in some of my favorite shows and movies like ‘Smart Guy’, ‘All That’ and the classic early 2000’s flick ‘Like Mike’. Kobe and Shaq were everywhere as Kobe captivated young kids around the world becoming the youngest player to win three championships.

This was when I got my first Kobe jersey that barely fits on my arm now. I would always play as Kobe, Shaq and Derek Fisher in the classic video game ‘NBA Street Volume 2’, but by the time Volume 3 came out in 2004, Shaq and Kobe had a messy divorce.

Many lost faith in Kobe during this time and young kids like myself didn’t know what to make of it. However, once Kobe scored 81 points on January 22nd, 2006 he had regained the faith that all his true original supporters had in him.

Kobe was ready to get back to inspiring the masses with his indelible, undeniable work ethic and enigmatic aura. As Magic Johnson said while introducing Kobe during his last game, “we all remember where we were when he scored 81.”

When Magic Johnson stepped onto the court in a suit while Shaquille O’Neal sat courtside and he said, “we are here to celebrate greatness for 20 years,” you could almost feel an aura in the arena. Magic showing up on the floor of the Staples Center to honor Kobe felt like the equivalent of seeing someone welcomed to heaven and the crowd reacted appropriately in awe and disbelief.

Once Magic declared Kobe as, “the greatest to wear the purple and gold,” a wave of relief came over the crowd in a simultaneous sigh and cheer. People who supported Kobe for years always had to hear that Magic was the greatest Laker, but once Magic bestowed the honor upon Kobe, the torch had officially been passed.

Kobe Bryant had just become the greatest player for the greatest franchise in NBA history and the game hadn’t even started. Magic brought up the entire Buss family including the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss (known as the greatest owner of all time), Jeanie Buss (who is giving her father a run for that title) and Jim Buss, who could actually be seen sitting on the balcony having a bite before the game.

The final great moment of Magic’s speech came as he claimed Kobe had scored 50 points 25 times. The reality is that Kobe had only scored 50 points 24 times, so Magic essentially predicted the future of the new record by the end of this legendary night.

Kobe grew up idolizing Magic Johnson as a die-hard Laker fan. If you grew up watching Kobe, you grew up with multiple eras of basketball. That’s what made the video that followed after Magic so special.

An older, balder, friendlier Kobe looked up at the screen as one of the most iconic plays in NBA history was shown with a full-haired, “Frobe,” throwing an alley-oop to Shaq. Shaq then welcomed Kobe to retirement with orchestral music as the crowd finally began to realize what they were witnessing and you could see almost everyone begin to shed a tear of joy and grief simultaneously.

Considering the fact that Shaq and Kobe have an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to their feud, hearing Shaq wish Kobe well, compliment his career and his family was when you knew things were real. Next up was Derek Fisher singing Kobe’s praises and even calling him a friend.

More stars wished Kobe well and thanked him for the inspiration. All of his fiercest competitors could show nothing but love, and appreciation including Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony and even one of his fiercest rivals in Kevin Garnett.

Kobe and LeBron always had a rivalry to go along with their mutual respect so the boos that showered LeBron are quite ironic now that he dons the purple and gold. Immediately after this came roaring cheers as Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Phil Jackson came on the screen and you could feel the friendship, mentorship and respect wash over the crowd.

Last but not least, Jack Nicholson gave Kobe his flowers and the whole crowd was sucked into a moment they knew would be special no matter what happened. ‘Centuries’ by Fall Out Boy began to play as Kobe and Magic hugged at center court.

Ironically Fall Out Boy performed the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League’s version of the Super Bowl, in Winnipeg as Kobe released his poem announcing his retirement on November 29th, 2015. This was one of the most special parts of the season as the poem eventually became an Oscar-winning screenplay due to its genuine honesty and sentimentality.

Longtime Lakers announcer Lawrence Tanter reminded fans to stick around for a special presentation after and it was finally time to play a game.

Kobe Bryant’s final game:

After the most spectacular pregame presentation in basketball history, there was still a game to play on the final night of the regular season between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers. This was ironic because Michael Jordan’s iconic last game in a Chicago Bulls uniform was also against the Utah Jazz.

Jordan always wore 23 and halfway through Kobe’s career he switched from number 8 to number 24, which was when I bought my next Kobe jersey as did many others growing up with the Mamba. Jordan was always Kobe’s north star so it made sense that Kobe would make his number greater than Jordan’s in his pursuit of excellence.

Both numbers 8 and 24 were plastered on the Staples Center floor for Kobe’s final game. Those weren’t the only sights to behold as the arena was filled with a collection of stars that would have fit in a pop culture and sports history museum.

This included a moment where Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher met up and the audience got to watch it go down like a high school reunion. There were other former Lakers in attendance like Devean George, Ronnie Turiaf and D.J. Mbenga.

You could find Shaq chopping it up with fashion icon Jimmy Goldstein. You could see musicians from Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to the Weeknd, both before they performed at the Super Bowl.

Kanye and Jay-Z were even in the midst of a feud, but you could see them both courtside as the Black Mamba always brings people together. You could find soccer legend David Beckham at one end and Snoop Dogg at the other.

You could even find actors such as Arsenio Hall and Jeremy Piven. Last but not least, Jack Nicholson, the Lakers godfather, was in the house.

Even though number 8 and number 24 were in the building, it was time for number 24 to put on a show. However, Kobe showed right at the start that he was human after all as he had butterflies missing his first five shots.

The crowd would gasp every time he shot the ball, but no one lost faith as we knew Kobe would put on a great performance. In fact, I made friends with Roger Liao, who I still talk to today.

Growing up in Canada it was challenging to find people who felt the way I did about Kobe, but this was the first time where I felt right at home as everyone understood that Kobe Bryant meant far more than just basketball. The Mamba Mentality was a universal proverb of trying to be the best version of oneself and be a little better each and every day.

This was why meeting my friend Roger beside me was so special. Roger had recently finished studying business at USC and I had just finished my business degree.

Roger and I still talk today, but since I flew to the game by myself it was great to connect with Roger and share the entire experience. After Kobe missed his first five shots he immediately blocked a shot before hitting a tough baseline jumper and the crowd was right back into the game.

Kobe Bryant hit four more shots in a row as the crowd went completely bananas as did the Lakers bench. After this came multiple breaks that featured highlights of Kobe.

What was incredible was that these highlights were showing Kobe’s past greatness. But, with his last five shots consisting of driving layups, dazzling footwork, contested three-pointers and long twos these moments were somehow recreating themselves on the final night of Kobe’s career.

When the first quarter was all said and done Kobe had 15 points. I looked at Roger and told him Kobe was on pace for 60, but he thought I was joking.

Kobe Bryant hadn’t even scored 50 points in seven years so how could he score 60 on this night? Even more, Kobe was having the worst season of his career as his body began to completely break down.

This didn’t mean Kobe hadn’t shown flashes such as a 38-point performance including a game-winner against the Timberwolves or back-to-back game-winners against the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards. It just also meant that sometimes you might have to be shocked at Kobe going for 1-10 against teams he used to terrorize.

Earlier in the night, Magic mentioned that fellow Laker legend Gary Vitti would also be retiring. Vitti had been the Lakers athletic trainer for Kobe’s entire career. He got Kobe through a torn achilles tendon, a torn rotator cuff, a serious injury to his left knee over the last three years and playing through multiple injuries over the course of a 20-year career.

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Kobe Bryant dropped 7 points to bring his total to 22 at the half. However, there was a lot going on in that second quarter, particularly on the video screen.

Every star from across multiple industries seemingly appeared to thank Kobe. This included hockey legend Alexander Ovechkin, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Jack Black, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Paula Abdul and even Kim Kardashian.

This really showed the wide variety of impact Kobe had as the Mamba Mentality affected people of all ages in every profession as a quest for self-improvement.

Halftime in and of itself was a spectacle as Kanye and Jay-Z came together for a conversation with Kobe right in the midst of their feud. Baron Davis even came to join in the conversation as Kobe had turned the biggest stars into adoring, smiling fans.

By the time the second half rolled around the magic began to wash over the crowd as Kobe Bryant turned us all into little kids. Midway through the third quarter, Kobe eclipsed 30 points and everyone began to wonder how many points he could score.

Kobe was playing with young, raw, underdeveloped Lakers who were content to stand back and watch as Kobe singlehandedly took over. Most of these Lakers were born around the time Kobe was drafted.

Those who paid close attention to the season like myself could have seen this coming as Kobe scored 35 points in two quarters, and became the oldest player to do so, against the Houston Rockets just a couple of nights earlier.

By the end of the third quarter Kobe had 37. As the fourth quarter began Kobe Bryant was still in the game, but the Lakers were playing terribly as they had for most of the season.

By this point, I had become one of the people Kobe Bryant turned into little kids. I was screaming at the top of my lungs as Kobe hit nostalgic shot after nostalgic shot. He was crossing people up and splitting defenders like he had just entered the league.

All of a sudden Kobe hit 40 points, but somehow he kept going to the point where you could almost feel the arena shake with excitement as approached the almighty 50-point threshold. When Kobe drove for a tough layup and hit 50 I became the loudest person in the arena as I was high-fiving fans and leading them with my hands to stand up and join in the excited screaming.

Just like when I was a kid, Kobe had inspired me to be a confident leader in being myself. One of the times I was most inspired by Kobe was after I got to see him score 53 points in 2008 during his MVP season.

I never thought I would see anyone score that many points again, but of course it was Kobe Bryant on the last night of his career eclipsing this mark eight years later. The Lakers were down eight with two minutes to go and now they were only down four with a chance to actually win a game that looked all but lost.

Kobe had made his last three shots completely drained and out of breath having his best performance in years during the final game of his worst season and legendary career at 37 years old. He quickly veered to the left and hit a ridiculously difficult fadeaway three. At this point I was yelling so loud I was shaking and it seemed as though the whole arena had followed suit.

There was a kid in early middle school who may have been too young to grow up with Kobe and seemed bewildered by my excitement. I even caught him mimicking it at one point, but by the time Kobe hit that shot, the same kid turned around and gave me a high five as did all the fans around me.

My passion stuck out around some of the most passionate individuals I had ever met as people were sweating with excitement and no one could shed the smile from their face. Finally, Kobe Bryant dribbled up the court having scored 56 points with the Lakers having a chance to win the game.

He went in around a Julius Randle screen. Randle had grown up watching Kobe and now gave him an uncredited assist as Kobe dribbled around Randle and pulled up for the final shot of his career.

There’s no way it could actually go in and Kobe Bryant could somehow write the perfect ending for his final game. Could it? Of course it could! This is Kobe Bryant!

Kobe Bryant made the last shot of his career to win the game and put the Lakers up for good for his 58 points as the crowd was exhausted, exuberated and elated with joys, screams and tears all at the same time.

Only Kobe Bryant could bring out every single human emotion at once as he was always a polarizing figure. However, on this night you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t respect him.

Earlier in the season, Shaquille O’Neal challenged Kobe to get 50 in his last game to which Kobe responded, “Naw man, only in 2K.” Naturally, the only thing left for Kobe to do was to stick it to Shaq as he got fouled and went to the line to attempt to get to 60 points.

The crowd let out the loudest, most heartfelt MVP chant you will ever hear as we all knew it would be the last time we got to do it for the man who represented that chant. Kobe made the first free throw to get to 59 points.

Kobe Bryant’s first points in the NBA were from the free-throw line. This moment represented all those memories, the post-Shaq years, overcoming doubters, boos, cheers and everything in between.

I was trying to film with my phone while also watching in real life so my hands were shaking and with heavy breath, I said, “come on.” It almost felt like my life depended on it as Kobe hit his 60th point and I let out the loudest cheer of my life as Kobe Bryant somehow scored 60… 60 points on the final night of his career

After Kobe Bryant’s final game:

Kobe Bryant’s career was over, but somehow he was about to give us his most epic moment yet. The whole crowd was in pure bliss and Kobe Bryant was a real-life superhero who didn’t seem human.

Then, all of a sudden, all of the Lakers’ past came to stand on the court like a tour of Kobe’s life and career. You could tell guys like Shaq and Rick Fox hadn’t seen each other in a while and everyone was absolutely mesmerized by what had just transpired.

Finally, it was time for the man of the hour to get on the mic. “Man!” said Kobe with the excitement of his younger self, but the growl of a grizzled veteran. The entire crowd laughed and smiled along with Kobe.

Then, Kobe became one of us as he was now a retired basketball player speaking honestly with people he genuinely appreciated. My newest Kobe Jersey was drenched in sweat from jumping up and down cheering, just like so many in the arena and just like the man on the mic.

Kobe called himself a die-hard Laker fan and spoke of the ups and downs he’d been through with all of us, but that we stuck together. The man who once said nothing was more important than championships said, “I’m more proud… not about the championships, but about the down years because we played through all that stuff… we got our championships and we did it the right way.”

Then in an amazing twist, Kobe talked about how we as fans had inspired him, but he left an entire arena of people feeling like they could accomplish anything. Kobe expressed genuine love to us before thanking his entire family who we saw in attendance.

Finally, he said, “What Can I say… Mamba Out.” No one wanted to leave as everyone stayed around and took pictures with massive smiles on their faces. Purple confetti rained down from the rafters in the shape of a basketball with a gold 24 as ‘Celebration’ by Kool and the Gang played.

I will forever be inspired by this night as will so many others. The reality is that we all began grieving Kobe on this night as he moved onto his next chapter post-basketball.

Kobe Bryant always found the positive in life and while he may not be physically with us, the spirit of the Black Mamba will live on and inspire us forever. So instead of Mamba Out, I’ll say Mamba Forever.

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Thank you Kobe Bryant for the best night of my life and having an incredible impact on me and so many others that will only continue to grow.