Thursday April 14, 2016 – LOS ANGELES — There would be a celebration for Kobe Bryant on Wednesday. Everybody knew that much. The signs were everywhere. Look outside: a block party. Look courtside: gift bags for all. Look up: purple and yellow balloons suspended from the rafters of the Staples Center.
Before the Lakers had ever won a title in Los Angeles, they bunched balloons atop the Forum for Game 7 of the Finals with the Boston Celtics in 1969, anticipating a party that never came. That day ended in despair and embarrassment. Once upon a time, the Lakers could never win the big one.
Now, they rarely win at all. This was the worst season in the history of their proud franchise. But for 20 years here, Bryant was a callback to the glory days. He helped hang five banners high on the wall of Staples Center. They were the backdrop on Wednesday for the final point of his career: a free throw for his 60th of the night, a number no one else reached in the N.B.A. this season.
So when the balloons fell and the corner cannons blasted confetti, the celebration was more than a salute for past greatness. The Lakers’ 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz became an outpouring of joy for a singular sensation, for the rare and chilling moment when a once-great athlete digs deep for that old magic, and finds it.
“The coolest thing is that my kids actually saw me play like I used to play,” Bryant said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, Dad!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I used to do that.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ I was like, ‘Dude, YouTube it.’ ”
This was history unfolding in real time. Bryant, the third-leading scorer in N.B.A. history, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, had his first 60-point game since 2009 at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. He played 1,346 games in the regular season, and this was just his sixth with 60 points.
Jack Nicholson loved it. So did Jay Z and Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Adam Levine, Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield. They were all there, and dozens of scoreboard tributes played above Bryant’s head all game long. Magic Johnson, Bryant’s childhood hero, told the crowd that Bryant was the greatest Laker ever.
Bryant had arrived in the locker room around 5:15 p.m., wearing a black suit, black dress shirt and black tie, his “Black Mamba” persona, apparently, still in play. (The last words he would say to the crowd, hours later, were “Mamba out!”)
But there was no playoff berth at stake for the Lakers, who finished 17-65, and not even a spoiler role to play. The Jazz were eliminated from the playoff race. This was all about Bryant, right down to the odd prices at the souvenir stands that had his jersey numbers: $38.24 for a T-shirt, $424.80 for a jersey, and so on.
“It’s surreal,” Bryant said. “It’s almost like you’re in a fog. Everything is moving extremely slow but extremely fast. You’re trying to take it all in. You’re not quite sure where to look.”
He looked where he always has: the basket. Bryant played to type, like a man with so many more points to score and so little time to do it. His final performance would not be a dud, the way so many are. Michael Jordan scored 15 points in his final game as a Washington Wizard. Charles Barkley scored two as a Houston Rocket. Shaquille O’Neal — Bryant’s onetime teammate and foil, who hugged him courtside as the last seconds ticked away — scored none as a Celtic.
To score his 60, Bryant made 22 of 50 shots, including six of 21 from three-point range and 10 of 12 from the foul line. No player in at least three decades had taken 50 shots in a game before Wednesday. Even when he scored 81 points, in 2006, Bryant needed only 46 shots from the field. This game was like something from the days of Wilt Chamberlain, who took 63 shots in his 100-point game in 1962.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Lakers coach, Byron Scott, had greeted Bryant with a hug. “We were able to get through it,” he said, to make it to the final game without a debilitating injury. The game plan, Scott said, was simple.