Entering the fourth quarter of their last game of the season, the Lakers were down, again. But inside Los Angeles’s Staples Center on April 13, 2016, that didn’t really matter. Fans in the seats and the millions tuning into broadcasts of the game were watching for one reason: to witness Kobe Bryant’s final night in gold and purple.

Five months earlier, Bryant – then 37 and one of basketball’s most decorated players – announced that he would be retiring from the sport after the 2015-2016 season, concluding a storied and at times controversial 20-year career with the Lakers. Bryant shared the news in a short poem titled “Dear Basketball,” which went on to inspire an Oscar-winning animated short.

It’s difficult to watch now, knowing how his story ended Sunday.

– – –

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream

And I’ll always love you for it.

But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.

– – –

Memories of Bryant’s last moments on the court came rushing back Sunday, after the five-time NBA champion, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif. Bryant was 41. Amid countless tributes from fans, fellow athletes, celebrities and politicians, thousands remembered his professional career, which ended in Los Angeles, where it began.

Up until the final game, Bryant’s last season had been a difficult slog for the Lakers. The team had only won 16 games, its worst-ever record. The April 13 matchup against the Utah Jazz was shaping up to be another defeat in the Lakers’ collection of losses.

The season was tough for Bryant, too, as several before it had been. He had weathered a series of injuries during his lengthy career with the Lakers, but the brutal damage he endured in his last few years finally put an end to his game. He battled ankle sprains and eventually snapped his Achilles’ tendon. In the January before his final season, he had surgery for a torn rotator cuff. If it weren’t for his body, Bryant said he would have continued to play.

Advertising

– – –

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.

– – –

Even as the Lakers trailed the Jazz 75-66 going into the fourth quarter of Bryant’s farewell game, the mood in the nearly 20,000-seat Staples Center was electric. Bryant had already racked up 37 points, taking shot after shot as his teammates fed him the ball, and the “Black Mamba” was far from finished.

With roughly nine-and-a-half minutes left on the clock, Bryant knocked in a three-pointer that brought fans to their feet, sparking deafening chants of “Kobe. Kobe. Kobe.” The crowd barely had time to settle down before Bryant hit another three 30 seconds later.

“There’s not one person in here saying, ‘Kobe, pass,'” one announcer said.

Soon, Bryant was on the cusp of 50 points, having broken the record for most points scored by an NBA player in a career finale. His supporters, who had waited all season long for this night, were ecstatic.

– – –

So we both can savor every moment we have left together.

The good and the bad.

We have given each other

All that we have.

– – –

As the clock wound down, Bryant was relentless, driving around defenders to the hoop and taking shots left and right. Then, with just over 30 seconds to go, Bryant pulled up and fired off a mid-range jumper to give the Lakers a one-point lead. Two made free throws and an assist later, Bryant had secured 60 points for himself, and even better, a 101-96 victory for his team.

Advertising

Bryant’s teammates mobbed him on the court, even though there were still 4.1 seconds left in the game. Applause filled the arena as the Laker legend walked to the sideline one the last time and embraced his coach, Byron Scott.

– – –

I’ll always be that kid

With the rolled up socks

Garbage can in the corner

:05 seconds on the clock

Ball in my hands.

5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1

– – –

After the final buzzer, a still-sweating Bryant gave an emotional farewell to the stadium and fans watching at home.

“This has been absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s come to an end. You guys will always be in my heart.”

The crowd roared as Bryant finished speaking and prepared for his last walk through the fan-studded tunnel leading to the Lakers’ locker room.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” he said, just before dropping the microphone onto the polished court floor.

“Mamba out.”

One year later, Bryant’s farewell poem took a different form: an animated short that would go on to win an Oscar, making him the first former NBA player to ever receive the award.

The beautifully illustrated film, which Bryant narrates, traces his love of basketball as a 6-year-old to his grueling training late in his career. The young Bryant throws balled-up socks into a bin in the corner of his bedroom while picturing himself sinking shots in the NBA. An older Bryant, in his number 24 jersey, falls on the hardwood, spraining his joints and collapsing in pain, only to muscle through and keep playing.

But in the end, he says goodbye.

– – –

As a six-year-old boy

Deeply in love with you

I never saw the end of the tunnel.

I only saw myself

Running out of one.