He didn't walk away, he flew away, on the wings of legend, through the clouds of Hollywood, with a final act unmatched in Los Angeles sports history.
In a retirement party for the ages Wednesday night,
He shot. He shot some more. He kept shooting. Shots from the courtside seats, from underneath the basket, on wild drives, off crazy dribbles, back to the basket, feet in the air, hands in his face, shooting forever.
He scored. He scored some more. Swishes, rim-rattlers, layups, three-pointers, fallaways, runners, one hand, finger rolls, scoring forever.
For nearly three hours in front of a
Sixty points. Not a misprint. Fifty shots. Seriously. Twenty-three points in the fourth quarter to lead the Lakers back from a 14-point deficit in the final 10 minutes. Are you kidding me?
"I gave my soul to this game," an exhausted Bryant said afterward. "There's nothing else I can give."
Were you watching? At any point, did you find yourself brought from amazement to chills to tears? You were not alone.
He clanked his first five shots, made his next five shots, and spent the rest of the game drawing oohs and aahs and gasps and unadulterated screams from a crowd that wanted him to keep firing.
He was putting on a show for fans who had paid thousands for their tickets, just like he's always done, and if you were here, you know the prices were worth it.
When his shots sank, he posed and growled. When his shots missed, he scowled, and actually froze and cursed loudly after one particularly crazy miss.
He patted his chest, gritted his teeth, stared to the sky, scuffed at the wood. He barked at officials, haughtily shook his head in ordering his teammates to get out of the way, threw a behind-the-back pass, blocked a shot, and basically pulled out every wonderfully reckless trick that he's shown for two decades.
No matter where you were in the city, if you listened close, you could hear the fans chanting, "Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be" until those chants dissolved into a solid roar that may never end. If you listened extremely close in the final minutes, you heard your faithful correspondent stand up in his press seat and scream in awe. Professionalism be darned. This was Kobe Bryant, wearing the Lakers uniform for the last time, setting that jersey on fire. This was a legendary end to a legend.
For the record, the final basket of Bryant's career was a 20-foot jumper with 32 seconds remaining to give the Lakers the lead. He wonderfully stalked off the court with his jaw jutting like he was a kid again.
Also for the record, his last official statistic was a floor-length pass to Jordan Clarkson for a dunk. That's probably the most amazing part of an amazing night, right? Kobe Bryant's last stat was an assist!
"Tonight was trying to go out and play hard and try to put on a show as much as I possibly could," he said.
He was 37 going on 27 going on 17, and when he was finally removed from the game, he clapped for the screaming crowd and gave them a weary wave. Then he completed perhaps the Kobe-iest night ever by finishing his career in a perfect full circle.
He walked to the sidelines, found former nemesis
Then, after the game ended, he stepped back on the court and addressed the crowd with all the wonder that had just been witnessed.
"Man!" he shouted into the microphone, pausing for another roar.
He added, "You know ... I can't believe how fast 20 years went by, this is crazy, this is absolutely crazy. ... We've been through our ups and been through our downs, the most important part is that we all stayed together throughout. To spend 20 years here, you can't write something better than this."
And, no, could anyone have written something better than this ending?
"The thing that had me cracking up all night long, I go through 20 years of everybody screaming for me to pass the ball and the last night they're like, don't pass it," Bryant shouted to a laughing crowd.
He finished by saying, "God, I love you guys."
And, then, of course, "What can I say? Mamba out!"
He blew a kiss and he was gone, but, as he later showed, he will be Kobe forever. Meeting with the media, he was asked if this were a perfect ending.
"A perfect ending would have been a championship," he said.
But then he added that he just couldn't help himself. "I just gave myself up today," he said. "This is cool. This is fun. Just let it ride. Just enjoy it."
Sitting here amid a Staples Center full of Kobe Bryant stories, I'll end with mine. Actually 607 stories. That is number of pieces I have written for this newspaper that contained the name, "Kobe Bryant," as I've covered him from his first game to his last.
In the end, my favorite moments were not watching him on the court, but walking with him in the tunnel as he headed to his car after the game. Because he was perhaps the only
It was on those walks that he talked of his desperate need to win, his loathing of losing, and his belief that passion and perseverance could overcome anything. In some ways, it is a walk shared by everyone who has ever watched him shoot a basketball.
It was a walk he made for the last time Wednesday night, yellow confetti at his feet, the roars still ringing in his ears, that fadeaway shot still falling. With footsteps that will never be filled, Kobe Bryant has left the building.
Follow Kobe Bryant on Twitter: @billplaschke.