In 2015, after my first year of college, I started covering the Lakers. Since then, my fandom for the team has waned — partially because I want to be the best writer I can be, but also because that just seems to be the effect of devoting a good chunk of your life to writing about a rebuilding team.
I have four grey hairs on my scalp, and they’re all from the Byron Scott years.
On April 13, 2016, I had the night off, and I went to a pizza place in Ontario called Michaelangelo’s with my family to watch the Lakers game. In my opinion, they have the best pizza and wings in the Inland Empire, and it’s a pretty great place to watch a Lakers game. When the Lakers go on a run, the owner will come out in a purple and gold wig, waiving a Lakers flag with Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” playing in the background. Suffice to say, they’re not shy about their rooting interests, and considering almost everyone in Southern California is a Lakers fan, they have no reason to be.
At the time, the Lakers were 16-65. Even if they won their season finale against the Utah Jazz, the season was going to end as the worst in the team’s history. Despite this, the place was packed because of one man: Kobe Bryant.
Earlier in the season, Bryant had announced that the 2015-16 season would be his last, so this otherwise meaningless game against the Jazz on ESPN2 was making plans around.
The fans that hadn’t watched the Lakers since the last time they made the playoffs were visibly confused by the players on the floor. At one point, someone asked why Metta World Peace was on the bench, and when the Lakers were getting outplayed in the second quarter, this same fan maintained that it was because World Peace wasn’t playing.
If only that were true.
The reality was that the Lakers weren’t very good, and Bryant was no exception. For the season, he was shooting a career-low 35.4% from the field on 16.4 field goal attempts per game, and on defense, he was a complete non-factor. Bryant had 22 points at halftime, but the Lakers were down 15, and Bryant’s shots weren’t falling at an efficient clip.
Bryant and the Lakers got the game within five points in the third quarter, but the Jazz wouldn’t go away, and at the start of the fourth quarter, they went on a 7-2 run to increase the deficit back up to 14. The Lakers were going to lose on Bryant’s big night barring some late-game heroics from the Mamba, and with how many minutes up to that point, that seemed unlikely. Some fans started to leave, which was good news for my family because we were at a table too small for us.
Luckily for Lakers fans, Kobe Bryant made a career out of doing the improbable, and he ended his career the same way.
With just over three minutes left on the game clock, the Lakers trailed the Jazz 94-84. Bryant’s shots still weren’t falling at a particularly efficient rate, but he had an extra pep in his step to start the fourth quarter — the last 12 or so minutes of his NBA career. If anyone was going to carry the Lakers to a win, it was Bryant, and apparently he thought so too, because he scored 16 of his team’s 18 points to close the game on a perfect 5-5 shooting from the field.
Every shot that Bryant made was more unbelievable than the next. Even his teammates — many of whom grew up idolizing Bryant — couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
As we all know now, Bryant ended the game with 60 points — a fitting end for one of the most prolific scorers the NBA has ever seen.
I tried to keep my emotions intact that night, but I couldn’t. While Bryant was saying his goodbyes to the fans at Staples Center — and the ones at home — I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I had never known basketball without Kobe Bryant. Bryant made his NBA debut on November 3, 1996, two months after I was born.
While I was obviously too young to enjoy some of the peaks and valleys of Bryant’s Hall of Fame career, I was able to enjoy a good part of it, and I’ll always carry that part with me. Without Bryant, I don’t know if I would have fallen in love with basketball the way that I did.
April 13 may just be the anniversary of a game to some people, but, to me, it’s a celebration of the 20 years Bryant gave to the city of Los Angeles, all of which I was lucky enough to be alive for. Now that he’s gone, I feel especially grateful.
In the words of LeBron James: Mamba out, but not forgotten.