There is a reason why the art of sport is considered the greatest show on earth. The storylines that unfold over decades, the actors who take centre stage and the levels of drama so high that it literally turns the viewers borderline insane. Whereas the contest of sport is rich with the aforementioned traits, one thing it’s painstakingly short on is happy endings.
Too often we are confronted with images of Allen Iverson on the Grizzlies, ringless and a shell of his former self, Dan Marino hobbling off the field losing 62-7 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1999 play-offs, Zinedine Zidane walking past the Jules Rimet trophy in 2006 after being sent off in disgrace.
For these reasons and past case studies, there is always a strong sense of apprehension over the final years and retirement of a once-storied player.
When Kobe Bryant announced that the 2016 NBA season would be his last, after the initial shock that the man comprised of entirely sheer determination and willpower would be hanging them up, few could have expected how his final bout in the ring would conclude.
Bryant, whilst always competitive, had seen a downturn in form following his fifth NBA championship in 2010. A combination of old age, a lacklustre supporting cast and the wear and tear of a 20 year NBA career had taken its toll on Bryant. Bryant even conceded in his, now acclaimed, retirement letter in the Players Tribune, ‘My heart can take the pounding, My mind can handle the grind, But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.’
You can’t write about Kobe’s final game without referencing his Oscar-winning short film entitled ‘Dear Basketball’. The short film features a beautiful piece of animation and a narration by Bryant himself. The words that go along to the film are those he used to announce his retirement. ‘Dear Basketball’ is a perfect summation of why so many love sport, and basketball in particular. Kobe opens the letter by referencing his six-year-old self, shooting rolled-up tube socks into a basket, simulating hitting a game-winner as the shot clock rolls down. Something that Bryant would go on to do in the NBA so many times.
As Bryant made bucket after bucket after bucket against Utah, it’s impossible not to think of that six-year-old boy hitting those shots with the rolled-up tube socks. And in turn, not think of your own experiences as a child, simulating playing on the greatest stage, scoring last-minute winners through goalposts made of jumpers, of catching the winning touchdown pass from your dad, or hitting that game-winning home run.
‘When we first ran out of the tunnel, I caught myself. I put on my jersey and I go, “O.K. This is the last time I’m going to put on a jersey.” Then, it’s the last time I’ll run out of the tunnel. When those moments happen, you catch yourself getting really emotional.’ Bryant later wrote in another article for the Players Tribune, ‘Then you say, “O.K. You have to block that out because none of that makes a difference.” That’s when you go out there and completely lay an egg — completely mess up the situation. So you have to concentrate and focus.’
Concentrate and focus are exactly what Kobe did.
Kobe went out and dropped 60 points in Staples Center, the house he helped build, in front of a crowd which included Jack Nicholson, Snoop Dogg, Shaquille O’ Neal and thousands and thousands of loyal, fanatical disciples who worshipped the hardwood he walked on. Just go back and watch on YouTube the sheer pandemonium and jubilation that was flowing through Staples Centre as Kobe was making shot after shot after shot.
Kobe finished with 60 points, 44% field goal percentage, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. A perfect Kobe stat-line.
Bryant’s tragic death in early 2020, alongside his daughter Gigi Bryant and seven others, has enhanced this special moment even more so. Of course, there is the surface level, emphatic goodbye to basketball that Kobe orchestrated. But looking back, that final performance is all the more potent.
As the final curtain on Kobe’s career was coming down, the actor, like the true showman he was, had one last great performance in the greatest show of them all.