kobe bryant

When all is said and done and the remaining 48 hours of the week are used to reflect on Kobe Bryant’s last day and previous 20 years in the National Basketball Association, only one thing will matter.

It won’t be the touching tribute video that aired before last night’s “farewell game” in Staples Center against the Utah Jazz, the one that included Gregg Poppavich and the Laker peers he’d won championships with, including Lamar Odom (looking healthy!), Pau Gasol, and even Shaquille O’Neal.

It won’t be the fact that Bryant had 50 field goal attempts for the night, a stat very much in line with Kobe’s reputation as a ballhog and because, quite frankly, in your last game, you better take every opportunity you can.

It won’t even be Bryant’s “farewell address” after the game, one in which he commended the fans, praised his wife and children, and stressed the importance of loyalty – his loyalty, in particular – to the organization to which he’d pledged his blood, sweat, tears, and ligaments for two decades. And one which he concluded by proclaiming “Mamba, Out” and dropping the microphone. (Bryant’s website, capitalizing on the moment in sheer marketing genius, put up “Mamba Out” shirts for sale immediately after the speech)

No. What will matter most is what happened in the last three minutes of Kobe’s last game ever as a pro baller.

It seemed like the Jazz had the Lakers’ number, and that Kobe’s final game in the purple and gold would end in a loss. Bryant himself had already scored 45 points and played for 39 minutes of the game thus far. He could’ve gone to the bench, succumbed to his fatigue, and walked out having given it his all.

Except, he HADN’T given it his ALL.

For the final three minutes of his professional basketball career, the self-anointed Black Mamba summoned his Showtime Era self. He put on nothing short of a clinic, hitting miraculous threes, penetrating the paint, and never missing a single bucket for the remainder of the game. Social media rooted for him as he settled into a zone. We WANTED him to get 50; he cracked 51 points, and he KEPT going.

Kobe put the Lakers on his back and, as the saying goes, “left it all on the court.” He hit a three-pointer that put the Lakers within one of the Jazz’s lead with a minute left in the game. His teammates understood he had the hot hand; they kept feeding Kobe the rock. And then Kobe got away from his man, pulled up for a jumper… and let it fly. 58 points and the go-ahead bucket.

Taking advantage of the Jazz’s late fourth-quarter scoring drought and a surge of youth – or perhaps, a summoning of the will to win that defined his career – Kobe almost single-handledly seized a lead for the Lakers that they never lost, before acquiring his final two points from the free-throw line after a touch foul and topping the last game of his career with a 60-point piece de resistance. His final play before being taken out for good, ironically enough, was an assist to Jordan Clarkson.

Those final three minutes sum up Kobe’s entire career as a Laker: defiant, determined not to fail, and prepared to take as many shots as it took to get the job done. Kobe is aware of how much he’s hated, perhaps even more than he is adored by the Laker faithful. Look no further than his Nike “Mamba Day” commercial, during which he “conducts” a symphony of hecklers and critics (including Paul Pierce and his former coach Phil Jackson).

But hate doesn’t cancel out respect. And it’s tough not to respect an NBA career that includes five NBA championships, 18 All-Star Game Appearances, and being the 3rd all-time scorer in league history. It’s even tougher not to respect someone whose career might have been over after the Achilles tendon injury he suffered in 2013. Back then, Kobe Bryant vowed he would return. Beneath the arrogance lies an unshakeable work ethic and discipline, one we might all take notes from. Kobe aggressively trained and rehabbed so that he would be ready by the following season. And he was.

Though the man that came back wasn’t Kobe in his prime, he was still prideful, still stubborn. He never quit until he had to, three seasons later.

As a self-professed Kobe hater, I still remember with seething and hatred how he and his Lakers ousted my Rockets from the NBA Playoffs, in 1999, 2004 and especially 2009. My editor-in-chief shares this hate. I remember the late spin and fade-away jumpers, the jaw jutted out when he was feeling himself, the villain grinning at a jeering audience. I often joked that Bryant would go out on the court playing in a wheelchair if his legs failed him, just because how much he hated losing. Now I realize how accurate that was.

Last night was a storybook ending for the illustrious, undeniable career of a future (most likely first-ballot) NBA Hall of Famer. You can say what you will about whether he played better as #8 or #24. Though Kobe succumbed to humanity because his body forced him to, he had one last chance to put the “old man” jokes to rest – even the ones he can laugh at now, while bitterly scowling at Father Time – and he did that and then some. In typical Kobe fashion, he overshadowed the other prime-time game last night, the one with the team the Houston Rockets will see in playoffs who snatched the regular season wins record from the ’96 Chicago Bulls.

No, I can’t tweet #ThankYouKobe. My pride won’t let me. But on “Over My Dead Body,” Drake says, “Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.” I’d replace “jealousy” with “respect,” just so the statement more aptly fits Kobe Bean Bryant. And I think that would say enough.

Photo credit: Harry How, Getty Images.

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