In the press conference following Kobe Bryant's penultimate game, a 33-point Lakers loss in Oklahoma City, a reporter asked the Lakers shooting guard what he considered to be his greatest accomplishment. Bryant—a five-time champion, an 11-time All-NBA first-teamer, and a league MVP—replied, "Coming back from the Achilles injury, then fracturing my kneecap and then coming back from that one, then tearing my shoulder and here I am." This was an incorrect answer, of course, but it was also a characteristic one. No other athlete in recent history has fetishized hardship like Bryant has. For just about the entirety of his two-decade career, his public persona has been dedicated to building one of sports' most insistent myths of resolve.
That habit made his final season a little tricky. Everyone knew, coming in, that Bryant had mostly run out of basketball function, that his last campaign was little more than a fundraiser benefiting the self-images and portfolios of team and player alike. Still, he needed something to endure, if only to inhabit the part convincingly. The season took the shape of various put-on obligations: to his young teammates, then to the future health of the league, and finally, as Bryant shed pounds of wraps and icepacks to reenter games during the last few weeks, to the fans paying increasingly high prices to witness his endurance.
The spectacle of Bryant's last outing, though, had the counterintuitive effect of dissolving the pretense. In the buildup to Wednesday night's game against the Utah Jazz in Los Angeles, the five-month indulgence that has been this Lakers season finally got to present itself as such. Tickets went for outrageous prices, high-concept commercials were rolled out, A-listers showed up in requisite force, and nobody needed any nonsense about ambassadorship or duty to make sense of it. They wanted to see Kobe shoot some more shots, and they got to.
Bryant missed his first five attempts and looked bad doing it, leaving jumpers short and sailing them long, bouncing his layups off the back rim. The Lakers had scored only four points more than halfway through the opening quarter, and things were edging toward awkward when he made his first shot, a steep-angled fadeaway from outside the left block whose difficulty didn't inspire much confidence about the rest of the evening.
But after a hopeful flurry from Bryant—he hopped through the lane for a reverse layup, rose for a long baseline two, and drained a three—the game settled into its main pattern. The Lakers found Bryant ad nauseum, their only offensive variation consisting of his different starting positions. The Jazz, eliminated from playoff contention with a Houston win earlier in the evening, didn't send much help his direction. The game passed in a collage of politely contested jumpers and courtside interviews, and Bryant scored 60 points on 50 shots, leading the Lakers back from a double-digit deficit to secure a victory that will make the commemorative T-shirts look all the better.
The strategies in play were farcical, of course. The other four Lakers on the court at any given time acted as Kobe tributaries; the Jazz elected not to scheme against this tactic. Still, the evening had a legitimacy and electric charge not found in much of Bryant's recent play. Exhausted as he looked, he was not moralizing about the heartiness of his approach or visibly stoking his competitive fire; he was not playing the part of the righteous old basketball man. He was just trying to get as many buckets as he could, for his kicks and everyone else's, one more time.
The most impressive shot of the night—the one that most made him look like his younger self—came with 30 seconds left, when Bryant shouldered around a ball screen, pulled up from 20 feet, and drained a jumper to give the Lakers the lead. My favorite moment, though, happened back in the second quarter, when Bryant had just reentered the game. Isolated on the wing against Gordon Hayward, he lost his balance a bit, and Hayward pressed into him. Sensing an angle, Bryant spun on that gilded pivot foot and darted baseline for a layup, his fingers just scraping the underside of the rim.
The go-ahead jumper was a self-imitation, calling to mind the dozens of times he's done just that thing in far tougher circumstances. The stumble-and-go, though, belonged only to that evening. It was canniness and sapped legs and a directive to put up points, by whatever means still worked.
There will surely be the temptation, in certain corners, to call the game a gimmick. Some will question whether disregarding so many of basketball's strategic principles in order to let Bryant hoist shots really honored this iconically competitive player in the way it was meant to. People will try to find something pitiful in it, set next to the less ceremonious exits of other aged-out stars.
Bryant's last game was not a gimmick, though. The gimmicks were the furrowed brow and the underbite and the decrees of stewardship, the grandiose dressing up of a prolonged exit as a final inspection of the sport's soundness. Last night's game was a pleasant ending to an arrangement always meant to maximize pleasantness. It may not have been Bryant's best outing of the last couple years—what could that mean, in such an odd context?—but it was his most honest. It fit.