It was 20 years of greatness in a single night of magic.
Kobe Bryant returned to midcourt at Staples Center on Monday night for the first time in nearly two years as Lakers history fluttered around him like bits of dazzling confetti.
The fans again chanted “Ko-be, Ko-be!” and “M-V-P, M-V-P!”
Magic Johnson again threw a no-look pass, announcing that Bryant was “the greatest who’s ever worn the purple and gold.”
Jeanie Buss showed her trademark personal touch, fighting back tears while thanking Bryant for “staying loyal to the purple and gold and remaining a Laker for life when it might have been easier for you to leave.”
Then, in the waning seconds of a halftime ceremony of the Lakers game with the Golden State Warriors, Bryant again delivered in the clutch.
First, he stood proudly while the Lakers made NBA history by retiring not one, but two of his numbers, both 8 and 24 slowly unveiled high on the Staples Center rafters amid the nine other retired Lakers numbers and one Chick Hearn jersey.
Then, later, in his final dramatic shot before leaving the court, Bryant found and hugged Shaquille O’Neal.
“It’s not about the jerseys hanging up there for me, it’s about jerseys hanging up there before, without them I couldn’t be here today,” said a gracious Bryant into the microphone, adding, “It’s about embodying the spirit that exist in those jerseys up there … so that the next 20 years are better than the past 20 years.”
That’s going to be tough. That was one wild 20 years. There will never be another journey like it, one athlete spending his entire two-decade career with this city’s favorite team, seemingly all of Los Angeles bouncing up and down the court with him until the five-championship ride finally ended with his retirement in the spring of 2016.
Bryant is 39 and stays far from the game as a venture capitalist working on media and technology projects. His latest venture was shown on the video board at halftime, an animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” which is based on his retirement letter and is receiving some Oscar buzz.
But Monday, for one night, it was as if he had never left.
Before the game, the streets around Staples Center were filled with the biggest crowd since the 2010 NBA Finals. Many did not have tickets, which were going for more than $400 in the upper levels. Instead, they roamed through a makeshift amusement park called “Kobeland,” a place featuring an actual working Ferris wheel with cars numbered 8 and 24.
“I saw it driving in and I’m like, what?” Bryant said of the attraction.
Once inside the arena a couple of hours before the game, Bryant relived his walk through the long tunnel hallway toward the Lakers locker room, but this time did it a little differently.
He was pushing his 1-year-old daughter Bianka in a stroller.
“My biggest concern tonight is, is she going to be able to sit there for the duration of the game or is she going to try to run out on the court,” he said.
When the game began, with Bianka firmly on his lap, Bryant sat courtside with his wife and two older daughters while the young Lakers played hard and the scoreboard worked overtime showing highlight videos.
All around him were a mix and match of stars. O’Neal sat underneath one basket with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sitting a few seats away. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat next to Bill Russell. Kenley Jansen sat for a moment with owner Buss. Other former Lakers greats, including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and Rick Fox, also showed up.
The Lakers held the pregame news conference for Bryant in a giant interview room in Staples Center being used for only the second time since the 2010 Finals. The only other time was after Bryant’s final game two seasons ago, the one in which he scored 60 points.
It was during Monday’s pregame session that I asked Bryant, if he had a choice, would he retire No. 8 or No. 24. I was hoping he would say 24.
Wearing No. 8, he was a child. Wearing No. 24, he was a man.
Wearing No. 8, he won three championships as a freewheeling sidekick to O’Neal. Wearing No. 24, he led the Lakers to two titles without O’Neal, the child star becoming a mature leader.
So what is it, 8 or 24?
“I kind of go back and forth,” Bryant said, smiling. “Eight has something that 24 will never, ever, ever, ever, ever have, that’s the ability to grow hair. Honestly, it’s tough.”
When I pointed to my bald head in agreement, he said, “I didn’t understand your plight years ago but now I certainly do.”
Then he got serious, saying, “It’s really, really tough for me. Twenty-four was more challenging and I tend to gravitate to things that are harder to do. Physically for me it was really really hard to get up night in and night out, man. It’s a grind.”
He continued: “Taking on the Boston Celtics, having a bone fragment in my foot during that series, having a broken finger, muscling through the back half of the career, those were some of the toughest stretches of basketball I ever had.”
He concluded: “So I guess if you forced me to pick one, I would pick 24 because of that.”
The guess here is that when there is a statue erected outside Staples Center, it will be of Bryant standing on the press table with outstreched arms holding a basketball in celebration of the 2010 title over Boston. And he will be wearing 24.
After the halftime ceremony, which ended with Bryant thanking everyone and saying, “I love you, Mamba out,” he walked off the court hugging everyone in sight. The crowd roared when he hugged former rival O’Neal. It roared again when he hugged Fisher.
The crowd remembered. On this night, all kinds of Lakers history came rushing back.
“We asked for your hustle and you gave us your heart,” Buss said to Bryant.