Kobe: The Final Season

The End of a Legendary Career

By Joey Ramirez - Digital Reporter

The Road to Recovery

For seven months, the NBA’s third-leading scorer of all-time couldn’t even shoot a basketball.

The season-ending blow came during a moment of triumph. In New Orleans on Jan. 21, 2015, Kobe Bryant bolted past his defender and rose up for a two-handed slam.

Despite almost immediately feeling something wrong with his right shoulder after coming down from the rim, the five-time NBA champion attempted to push ahead with the patented toughness that has long been his calling card.

He even hit a left-handed turnaround jumper from the baseline, but head athletic trainer Gary Vitti knew that Bryant needed to come out of the game.

After tearing his right rotator cuff, Kobe Bryant tries to continue playing by shooting left-handed.

After tearing his right rotator cuff, Kobe Bryant tries to continue playing by shooting left-handed.

Initially, the seriousness of the injury didn’t resonate with Bryant himself.

“I’ve played with a torn labrum before," Bryant said after the game. “I’m not too concerned about it."

Turns out, the pain in his shoulder that had persisted since 2001 finally reached its apex.

Days later, Bryant would learn the news. Like the Achilles tear and fractured kneecap before it, a torn rotator cuff had ended his season prematurely for the third straight year.

Even the Lakers’ iron-willed leader allowed a moment of disbelief when his doctor delivered the verdict.

“I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, man. I don’t know if I can do another nine months (of rehabilitation),’" Bryant said on March 10, 2015. “This is crazy."

So, on Aug. 22, when Bryant’s shoulder finally permitted the franchise’s leading scorer to shoot once again, he documented the moment by sharing a photo of himself in the gym with his five million-plus Instagram followers.

The Lakers’ faithful rejoiced. The Black Mamba was back. But, after playing only 41 games in the past two years combined, many wondered for how long.

Bryant had already publicly considered — yet not committed to — the idea of retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season, and the vision of him ending his career in a cast or on crutches was a legitimate fear among fans.

Kobe Bryant takes off for an in-scrimmage dunk at his final training camp at the University of Hawaii.

Kobe Bryant takes off for an in-scrimmage dunk at his final training camp at the University of Hawaii.

So when training camp opened a month later, everyone’s eyes locked in on him.

But Bryant managed to escape detection on day one in Honolulu — fittingly the setting for his first and last camps — waking up at 6 a.m. for a pre-practice workout before showing up to the arena an hour early.

“That’s where the tough fourth-quarter, overtime buckets that he makes come from," second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell said. “He’s the first one here. He might be fooling us all with the (ice-pack) sling on his shoulder."

But ice and slings would become a constant fixture on Bryant’s body over the next eight months. The aches of the past 19 seasons had at last caught up with him.

Bryant played the majority of the Lakers’ preseason slate, yet there was little time to prepare his body for the next 82 games. Tip-off was finally at hand.

Year 20 was ready to begin.

Gift and Go

Fans pouring into Staples Center on Nov. 29 had already heard the news.

But any doubt — or hope that it wasn’t true — vanished when they opened the black envelope left on their seats. Inside each was a poem written by Kobe Bryant to the fans, much like the letter he penned to basketball itself, which crashed “The Players’ Tribune" website due to an avalanche of web traffic.

The twin poems relayed the same message: After two decades of ascending to global stardom, Bryant would be retiring at the end of the season.

Titled “Dear Basketball," Bryant put it in his own words: “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."

They got me. I wasn’t expecting that type of reaction and ovation. It was emotional for me, and I deeply appreciate beyond belief.

Kobe Bryant

With the 18,997 letters waiting for every fan in the arena, so began a season-long cycle of giving and receiving for Bryant.

Appropriately, Bryant’s so-called “farewell tour" began in his hometown of Philadelphia, where the pride of local Lower Merion High School had been viciously booed 14 years earlier while winning his first All-Star Game MVP.

The 76ers — whom Bryant helped the Lakers defeat in the 2001 NBA Finals — started the festivities off with one of his many video tributes, beginning in the style of his own poetry with the words “Dear Kobe."

“They got me," Bryant said postgame on Dec. 1. “I wasn’t expecting that type of reaction and ovation. It was emotional for me, and I deeply appreciate beyond belief."

From there, Bryant received a bit of everything from each team. Some were expansive, like the Utah Jazz — who gave him an outdoors-themed plethora that included a decade pass to the all of the country’s National Parks and a pair of custom skis.

Others dabbled in creativity, such as the Hawks collaborating with Zoo Atlanta to change the name of its actual black mamba snake to “Kobe."

Even the hated Boston Celtics offered a token of respect for the man whom they faced in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals, presenting Bryant with a piece of their famed parquet floor — like they had done for another iconic Laker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 27 years earlier.

Kobe Bryant looks on during the Utah Jazz’s tribute to his 20-year career.

Kobe Bryant looks on during the Utah Jazz’s tribute to his 20-year career.

Bryant’s presence warranted an extended pregame introduction in just about every city, but the Chicago Bulls took it a step further when Pau Gasol — whom Bryant calls his brother — appeared on the jumbo screen on Feb. 21.

“Ladies and gentlemen," Gasol said in a prerecorded segment. “It is my honor to introduce to you for the last time at the United Center, my former teammate and my friend, from Lower Merion High School, No. 24, Kobe Bryant."

While the rest of the NBA jumped to honor Bryant, he gave back to his peers in his own way.

A common image throughout the season became Bryant with a pen and pair of shoes in hand, leaving his signature for a fellow star.

From LeBron James and Kevin Durant to Chris Paul and Paul George, players with millions of fans themselves waited after games for Bryant to ink some kicks for them. He left a personal message for each one.

The generosity of 20th-season Bryant even seeped into the audience, as he occasionally threw his shooting sleeve into the stands before walking off the court.

A couple of boys in Denver even received the shoes right off of the legend’s feet. He put his John Hancock on his purple and white set of sneakers after they correctly guessed that his dog is named “Crucio" after a spell from the “Harry Potter" novels.

Another boy, whose family had come all the way from Denmark to see Bryant one more time, was brought to tears after the superstar made sure that he ended up with his sleeve.

“It’s fun to put a smile on their faces and hopefully have this be an experience that they’ll cherish for a time to come," Bryant said following the game on March 27.

After all, Bryant knows what it means to receive something from one’s childhood hero.

During the All-Star Break in Toronto, Bryant was given, as a retirement gift, two full sets of 30 Air Jordan sneakers — one to auction for charity and one to keep.

The sender? Michael Jordan, himself.

Goodbye Among the Stars

Kobe Bryant stared up to the 32 x 28 foot version of himself from yesteryear on the Air Canada Centre video board.

“Welcome to the Kobe Show,” his afro-wearing teenage self said to the sold-out All-Star crowd.

Bryant watched the video tribute before taking in an introduction from his friend, and fellow Lakers legend, Magic Johnson. As he walked to center court, Johnson proclaimed, “There will never be another Kobe Bryant.”

Certainly Bryant’s fellow All-Stars agreed, as the entire weekend in Toronto revolved around giving him one last farewell among the league’s best.

In the months before the spectacle, Bryant’s global fanbase made itself clear: No matter his rising age or dwindling efficiency, his followers wanted to see him shine one more time.

Bryant received nearly 1.9 million All-Star votes, leading the league for the fourth time in his career. His massive haul even eclipsed the combined totals of fellow Western Conference starters Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (1.8 million).

In the days leading up to the game, every player was peppered with questions about how Bryant had impacted them.

Some recalled watching him as a kid. Others compared him to Michael Jordan. Everyone had a story relating back to the retiring superstar.

At the 2016 All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant readies a shot over friend and Olympic teammate Dwyane Wade.

At the 2016 All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant readies a shot over friend and Olympic teammate Dwyane Wade.

“Having a relationship with one of my heroes, one of my role models as a basketball player, meant a lot,” Dwyane Wade said. “To be able to pick up the phone (and) reach out to him means a lot. It means more than the words that even he can say.”

Bryant did his part once the game tipped off, providing 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the Western Conference’s victory.

To be able to pick up the phone (and) reach out to him means a lot. It means more than the words that even he can say

Dwyane Wade

But the exhibition was much more than stats and scores, as he took in his final All-Star Game with his family sitting right behind him. “Dame beso,” the multilingual Bryant said, returning to the bench as his daughters, Natalia and Gianna, granted their dad’s request for kisses.

It was a true family affair, even among those on the other team. Every player — as well as the crowd — stood and clapped for Bryant as he checked out in the fourth quarter, leaving the game with a salute.

“I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench,” Bryant said.

Toward the end of the game, TV cameras caught Bryant standing with one of his favorite teammates, Pau Gasol, admitting, “It’s been fun.”

With an episode full of guest stars, the “Kobe Show” was rolling toward its series finale.

The Eighty-Two Game Grind

They called it “general soreness.”

Perhaps a more accurate description would have been “ready for a sarcophagus.”

After playing only nine minutes on March 30, Bryant looked on from the bench, practically mummified by the medical staff working to preserve his body.

With heat packs wrapped around his right shoulder and both knees, plus tape on both middle fingers, 20 years of basketball had indeed taken a toll on Bryant.

The aches began early for the 37-year-old veteran, who missed the seventh and eighth games of the season due to a sore back.

Four days later, that rest paid off in a win over Detroit, but it was clear to Bryant that his body was in for a long year, as he expressed his dread for the walk back to his car.

“Right now, I’m barely standing up,” he said. “My back and my legs, man, it’s killing me.

He's had injuries, played through stuff that nobody will ever know about. He's a warrior. He's one of the toughest we've ever had.

Gregg Popovich

Bryant rested the following game before playing for nearly a month straight. From there, his right shoulder — the same one repaired over the summer — began experiencing pain that would persist for the remainder of the season.

He sat three straight games, and five days later, missed another due to a sore right Achilles tendon. That, too, became a constant source of discomfort for the man who tore his other Achilles in April 2013, sparking the spiral of three straight season-ending injuries.

In his last year, Bryant sat out for 16 games total — the last dozen of which were all held at Staples Center. However, he nonetheless managed to fight to his goals of playing in his final contest at every arena, as well as each of the last 13 of his career.

While Bryant was plagued by his sore shoulder and Achilles for nearly the entire year, perhaps his grittiest display came during an isolated incident on Feb. 19.

While chasing a loose ball against San Antonio, Bryant slipped and used his right hand to avoid falling. He avoided eating a mouthful of hardwood, but instead came back up with a dislocated middle finger that he said looked like the letter ’S.’

Head Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti attends to Kobe Bryant’s injured finger.

Head Athletic Trainer Gary Vitti attends to Kobe Bryant’s injured finger.

Head athletic trainer Gary Vitti knew that more athletic tape wasn’t going to be enough for this one. Bryant agreed: It needed to be popped back in.

Vitti took hold of Bryant’s hand as a woman sitting courtside covered her ears and looked away in disgust. A half-second later, Vitti's operation was over and Bryant was ready to re-enter the game.

“He’s had injuries, played through stuff that nobody will ever even know about,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s a warrior. He’s one of the toughest we’ve ever had.”

But to Bryant and Vitti, it was just another amusing moment in their two decades of trudging through everything from the flu and food poisoning to a broken hand and, yes, a torn Achiles.

“Maybe we’re just really weird or whatever, but we find these things extremely funny,” Bryant said. “I go to the bench, he looks and my finger and goes, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good one.’ I go, ‘Yeah, no s—. Do something about it!’

“Then he pops it back in place and we just kind of laugh about it. He’s known me for many years. He knows I’m gonna go right back in again. But we laugh and we joke about it. We’ve seen it all.”

Vino

A global superstar on and off the court, Kobe Bryant made the most of his day in D.C. The five-time champion caught up with President Barack Obama over lunch before igniting for 31 points to lead the Lakers past Washington later that night.

Down by one with 58 seconds left on Dec. 2, Bryant splashed a 3-pointer that was quickly answered by a tying bucket from the Wizards. But the situation was never too big for the man who had been at the White House hours before, as he responded with a go-ahead fadeaway jumper.

“It was like a movie, him taking it over toward the end, knocking those shots down,” Jordan Clarkson said. “It was crazy. The atmosphere was crazy. The energy was crazy.”

Bryant’s production in his final season was far from his lofty standard. He shot a career-worst field goal percentage and his averaged his fewest points since his sophomore season in 1997-98.

Still, despite his 1,280 games worth of mileage entering this year, the 37-year-old managed to provide plenty of throwback moments in his final go-around.

Twenty days after defeating the Wizards, Bryant watched from the sideline for the entire second quarter while his team fell behind by 21 in Denver, as Nuggets relied on their sixth man, Will Barton, who racked up 23 points by halftime.

However, Bryant switched onto Barton defensively for the rest of the way, holding him to two points. On the other end, the “Black Mamba” ignited for 31 points in 32 minutes, capping a strong seven-game stretch after shooting just 29.6 percent in his first 17 contests.

“There have been games where I was like, ‘What the hell?’” Bryant said on Dec. 22. “Because I knew how hard I worked. I knew how many shots I took. And there was nothing I could do. You just have to stay with it.”

Even when Bryant’s shots weren’t falling — which happened more times than any other season in his career — he still found a way to come though in several clutch moments.

At the end of his final game in Boston on Dec. 30, Bryant — who had hit just 4-of-17 to that point — took control of the situation after the rival Celtics trimmed Los Angeles’ lead to two with 1:40 left. The two-time NBA Finals MVP rose up from 28 feet out and drained a dagger triple, which elicited chants of “Ko-be!” from the TD Garden crowd.

“Honestly, if I could chant for them, I would,” Bryant said. “I don’t think the fans here really understand how much they drove me. From the singing of the songs to the shaking of the bus. Long nights in the hotel. That stuff really stuck with me and drove me into maniacal proportions. So I don’t know if they really understand how much they meant to my career.”

I hate him. If I don't ever see him again, it won't be too soon. I hate him.

Sam Mitchell

But Bryant topped that a month later on his home floor at Staples Center. Facing Minnesota — whose interim coach, Sam Mitchell, was on the other side of his historic 81-point night one decade earlier — Bryant was a carbon copy of his prime self.

Not only did he drop 38 points on Feb. 2, but when the Timberwolves stole the lead with five minutes left, he hit back-to-back go-ahead 3-pointers, then added eight points in the last 26 seconds to seal it.

While many around the league who lamented seeing Bryant go, Mitchell had been burned too many times to feel much nostalgia.

“I hate him,” Mitchell said. “If I don’t ever see him again, it won’t be too soon. I hate him.”

Fortunately for Mitchell, Bryant will never be part of his game plan again.

Kobe turns back the clock as he rises for the posterizing dunk over Houston center Clint Capela

Despite Houston’s Clint Capela getting a hand on the ball, Kobe Bryant throws down a poster dunk.

The 18-time All-Star acknowledged throughout the year that his body wouldn’t allow him to play another season even if he wanted to. And that showed as his highlight tape grew with no-look passes or last-minute shots rather than rim-rattling dunks.

But the old man still showed some hops every now and again, like on Dec. 17 when he rose up and thew down over Houston’s Clint Capela.

Bryant even asked himself mid-play, “How many times am I going to jump where my legs actually feel fine?”

When he came back down to earth, a hero’s welcome was waiting for him, as the Staples Center faithful roared with amazement and serenaded their departing star with a familiar chant from the past 20 years.

“MVP! MVP!”

Mamba Mentoring

In Chicago on Dec. 19, 1997, a 19-year-old NBA sophomore named Kobe Bryant found himself trading blows with, by most accounts, the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball.

Bryant dropped 33 points, but the Bulls routed his Lakers behind 36 from Michael Jordan.

Despite the loss, Bryant gained something immeasurable, as he picked the brain of his childhood hero during the head-to-head duel.

While Bryant took the lessons he learned from Jordan over the years to build his own legendary career, a new generation of basketball fans grew up idolizing Bryant in the same way that he did with Jordan.

Among those was his future teammate, Julius Randle, who was only a year old when Bryant made his NBA debut in 1996.

Twenty years later, the 2014 seventh-overall draft pick was on the same floor as Bryant for his final season.

“I’ve been watching him do it since I was a little kid,” Randle said after Bryant scored 31 points against Denver on Dec. 22. “This is nothing new.”

Kobe Bryant pauses for a moment with childhood idol Michael Jordan during a game on Dec. 19, 1997.

Kobe Bryant pauses for a moment with childhood idol Michael Jordan during a game on Dec. 19, 1997.

While Randle’s fellow young Lakers echoed that respect throughout the year, Bryant reached points in the season where he deferred to the team’s youth, like on Jan. 7 when he sat the fourth quarter despite scoring 28 through three.

“I’d much rather watch the young guys play,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ loss to Sacramento. “They played so hard and they work really, really hard. It’s important for them to figure out how to close those games out without me on the floor, because obviously I’m not gonna be there next year.”

Throughout the year, Bryant sprinkled in advice whenever asked for it, whether it be an in-game concept breakdown with Jordan Clarkson or a morning film session with D’Angelo Russell.

A career’s worth of experience was especially useful when defending-champion Golden State brought its NBA-record 55 wins through 60 games to Los Angeles on March 6.

Teachable moments during the game are great lessons for the young guards.

Teachable moments during the game are great lessons for the young guards.

Bryant — who said that he had trouble even turning on his car radio without pain in the days before — shot just 4-of-14 and sat the whole fourth quarter, but his young teammates pointed to him as a source of their victory.

“He led us,” Randle said. “Like I said, it was important that we locked in for a full 48 minutes, because (the Warriors) are so explosive as a team. Any time he thought there was any little slippage or whatever, he was on us.”

Indeed, the competitor who famously called his teammates “soft like Charmin” toilet paper during a practice the year before, put that fire toward guiding a group of 20-somethings to a 17-point beatdown of their historic opponent.

“He’s very aggressive with his words,” Russell said. “I can’t really say what he was saying, but it was very aggressive. But he got the bigs to push up and the guards to push up (defensively on pick-and-rolls) and play tougher. Kobe did his thing.”

For 20 years, his “thing” had mainly been providing the winning buckets himself. But that night — for the man who swears to have no interest in coaching — it meant barking instructions to the young guys from the sideline, wrapped-up shoulder and all.

The Last Battle

High above the city that chants his name, Kobe Bryant made his descent.

When the black-and-gold helicopter — customized with his own “Black Mamba” logo and a Nike swoosh — finally touched down, he exited in an all-black suit for his final battle.

Twenty years had come down to the last page of the closing chapter.

In the build-up to this career finale, Bryant avoided as much of the outside world as he possibly could. Soaring thousands of feet above it made for a brief sanctuary, but the magnitude of the moment became clear when he walked into Staples Center on April 13 and every eye, camera and phone locked in on him.

Hours later, the game neared tip-off, but the pageantry had just started. His childhood hero, Magic Johnson, opened the night by stepping out to center court and declaring, “We are here to celebrate greatness for 20 years.”

A series of video tributes followed, as everyone from Lamar Odom and Shaquille O’Neal to Snoop Dogg and Taylor Swift paid homage to the retiring icon. Jack Nicholson ends the first segment by declaring, “You’ve been an inspiration to us all, and L.A. loves you.”

The gravity of the night was, at first, even more than Bryant expected.

An admittedly nervous Bryant missed the first five shots of his final game. But the NBA’s third-leading scorer of all-time planned to empty every bullet out of the arsenal for this one. After all, gone were duels with Paul Pierce or Tracy McGrady — his next adversary was the morning treadmill.

Over the following two hours, Bryant fired 50 shots. At first, it seemed like it still may not be enough. Midway through the fourth quarter, he splashed a jumper to reach 45 points — the most of any player in the final game of his career. But he wasn’t even close to finished.

With 2:36 remaining, the Lakers trailed by 10 to Utah, a team that pounded them by a franchise-record 48 points just two weeks earlier.

Exhausted, Bryant conducted one last symphony with his shot. He dazzled the crowd, teammates and opponents with a series that includes a layup, jumpers and free throws. Thirty-two seconds on the clock and down by one, Bryant pulled up from 19 feet and drained the final shot of his career.

Kobe Bryant rises for what would be the game winning shot over Trey Lyles with 32.9 seconds remaining in the game.

Kobe Bryant rises for what would be the game winning shot over Trey Lyles with 32.9 seconds remaining in the game.

“The past 20 years: Get the ball to Kobe and he usually wins,” Larry Nance Jr. said.

Bryant ended up with it one more time for a pair of free throws. He sank both. The final tally: 60 points, including 13 straight, and victory.

“It’s almost like you’re in a fog, and everything is moving extremely slow yet extremely fast,” Bryant said after scoring the most points of any player that season. “You’re trying to take it all in, not quite sure where to look.”

Everyone wanted a piece of Bryant from there, as he was surrounded on all sides by photographers, teammates, celebrities and more. Eventually he found his was over to his two daughters, Natalia and Gianna, who couldn’t believe their father’s performance.

The past 20 years: Get the ball to Kobe and he usually wins.

Larry Nance Jr.

Dad assured them that he used to play like that all the time. “YouTube it,” he told them.

Before exiting, Bryant addressed the sold-out crowd for the final time, grabbing a microphone at center court. The lifelong Laker fan, who grew up playing in kneepads in imitation of Magic Johnson, relayed how much it meant to spend his entire career in purple and gold.

“To be drafted and then traded to this organization — and then spend 20 years here — you can’t write something better than this,” he said to the 18,997 in attendance.

After two decades of championship parades, record-breaking nights and many, many buckets, Bryant only had a few more words for the roaring crowd.

“What can I say? Mamba out.”

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