Four years ago today, one of the greatest NBA players ever lavished the league with one last spectacle for the ages.
Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant turned back the clock and conducted the most extraordinary finale in sports history.
In the final game of his storied career and the 2015-16 NBA season against the Utah Jazz, the then-37-year-old unleashed a vintage performance.
While teammates were pushing Bryant to go for 50 points, some were doubtful the 20-year pro could still pull it off in his 1,346 regular season game.
Former Lakers guard Nick Young didn’t know if Bryant had it in him due to extensive mileage and lack of preparation.
“We were definitely pushing [for Bryant to go for 50], but we didn’t know he’d actually do it because he didn’t come to no practices,” Young told Lakers Daily in an exclusive Q&A. “So you didn’t think he was prepared or going to play that many minutes. After he announced his retirement, it was just him coming to games.”
The 2007 MVP didn’t just meet expectations. Of course, he surpassed it while blowing everyone away in the process.
Bryant finished the contest with a captivating 60 points, four assists and four rebounds on 22-of-50 shooting from the field in 42 minutes.
With the Lakers trailing the Jazz for a majority of the game, Bryant went all out to save the only NBA team he’s ever played for. The Lakers fell behind as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter.
Yet, Bryant, who always had a tenacious hunger to win, refused to go out a loser. He erupted in the final frame, scoring 15 of the Lakers’ last 17 points and knocking down the game-winning shot with 31.6 seconds left.
Just as he dominated dozens of teams in the past, Bryant outscored the Jazz, 23-21, in the close quarter to lead the Lakers to a 101-96 victory.
“This is really dope!” Young remembered saying in awe. “This is crazy! How do you just turn it on like that? No practice. Nothing. Only Kobe could do that.”
While the world watched in admiration of Bryant’s heroics, players on the Jazz had to endure the damage.
Then-Jazz guard Shelvin Mack, who put up 12 points, six assists and five boards in 35 minutes that night, just needed a few words to break down Bryant’s fourth-quarter explosion.
“He just finds a way to will his way to a win,” Mack told Lakers Daily. “And he was doing unbelievable things while he was at.”
Mack, 29, grew up a big fan of Bryant and even wore No. 8 on the Jazz in honor of him.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP surely did accomplish some unbelievable feats during his last act.
The outing made him the only player to ever score 60 points at age 33 or older.
Furthermore, his 50 attempted field goals were the most by any player since the 1983-84 season, while his 21 three-point tries were just one shy of the all-time record.
Compared to other NBA legends’ concluding chapters, Bryant’s culminating act was quite the extravaganza.
To put things into perspective, Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird put up 16 points, six-time champion Michael Jordan scored 15 points and all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recorded 10 points in their respective final games.
Fast forward four years, that historic finale from Bryant has a whole new meaning. For many, it has sadly become the last memory of Bryant.
On Jan. 26, 2020, the legendary and irreplaceable star saw his life come to an end in a horrific helicopter crash. Bryant’s daughter Gianna and seven other passengers tragically lost their lives in the accident as well.
Mack, who was in Israel when he learned of the elder Bryant’s passing, was distraught and didn’t believe the news at first.
“I was devastated,” Mack recalled. “Definitely devastated, especially with his Hall of Fame coming up. I would have loved to hear his speech. Also, like, I have kids right now. The kids were impacted as well. That was the hardest thing.”
Yet, the guard said he feels extremely blessed to have taken part in the Lakers legend’s last rodeo.
While he jokes that the 18-time All-Star never scored on him during the finale, he holds the closing contest against his idol close to his heart. After all, Mack wore No. 8 because of the elder Bryant.
“Looking back on it,” Mack said. “It’s crazy that I was able to be a part of that with one of my favorite players.”
Before the game, Mack got shoes signed by the elder Bryant and told the five-time champion how much he looked up to him.
The Lakers geeked out as well. Young remembers how teammates lined up waiting to get autographs from the elder Bryant, as if they were just a bunch of fans. However, Young’s son got more love than him that day.
“My son came that day and got a picture with Kobe, and he also threw my shoes in the trash when I tried to get an autograph,” Young recalled of his favorite memory from that magnificent night.
“It’s a dream come true,” Young said. “I grew up in LA. I had Kobe’s jersey. Pictures. My childhood dream came to life in a sense. To even have Kobe know me, be friends and get to play together.”
Today, everyone should remember how blessed we were to watch the elder Bryant light up opponents for 20 years and entertain us with the greatest finale in NBA history.