“I Was There” – My firsthand account of Kobe’s last game, accompanied by my thoughts on yesterday’s tragedy

It felt like 2010 outside of Staples Center. 

L.A. Live was filled to the brim. Thousands of fans, lines outside of the restaurants, music blasting. You could feel something special in the air.  

The atmosphere was electric, and it felt like the Lakers were back in the Finals, ready to capture the team’s 17th NBA Championship. 

Except it wasn’t 2010.

It was 2016 and the Lakers were playing their final game of a dreadful season in which they finished with a 17-65 record. But you wouldn’t know the team was about to top off the final game of what was the worst season in the team’s 69-year history. 

It was Kobe Bryant’s final game in the purple and gold. The end of one of the most amazing NBA legacies the world has ever witnessed. 

After spending his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, Bryant was finally calling it quits. One MVP Award, Five NBA Championships, two Finals MVPs, 18 All-Star Games, four All-Star Game MVPs, 11 All-NBA First Team selections and nine All-NBA Defensive first team selections; all of this amongst dozens of other accomplishments, and Kobe was finally done.

We got to Staples Center about four hours early. If it wasn’t for the traffic we would’ve gotten there even earlier. Already people were lining up to get inside to try and watch Kobe warm-up one final time.

By this point it still hadn’t hit me that Kobe Bryant was no longer playing basketball.

We checked into our hotel across the street and within 30 seconds of standing in the lobby heard that there was a NBA Reception party upstairs at the bar and that Tracy McGrady was staying in the same hotel. Things started getting a little more real after that. 

Like anyone would, we tried to find a spot in the back of the bar to avoid getting kicked out before all the big names showed up. After about an hour they found us, and as expected we were asked to leave.

At this point we decided to wander around L.A. Live amidst the hundreds of street vendors, thousands of fans and even larger amounts of media members. Trying to move around freely was nearly impossible as every single person there was trying to go one way or the other. After trudging through the crowd we finally found a spot in line.

This was probably the worst part of the night, as we stood there, unmoving for over an hour as the Staples Center security used the security wand on every single person entering the stadium. After plenty of jokes about the TSA’s inferior security procedures as compared to that of the Staples Center crew, we were finally inside. 

And that’s when it hit me.

The walls were covered in blown-up pictures of Kobe’s most monumental moments. Championship number one with Shaq. His posterization of Yao Ming. The 81 point game. Championship number five over the Celtics. 

Never in my life had I seen so many people wearing the same player’s jersey, as thousands of 8’s and 24’s crossed in front of me. 

We were handed a large photo book filled with the same pictures covering the wall, and before getting a chance to take a look I was told to hurry to my seat before our free Mamba shirt was taken. 

A quick sprint around Staples Center led us to the right section and we were finally there, ready to witness the end of a legend, shirts in hand.

But first, the tributes.

Magic Johnson. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Jay-Z, Kanye, and so many more. NBA Players of old and those who had modeled their current game after Kobe’s.

Finally it was game time and Kobe took the floor to the loudest cheers I had heard in Staples Center in a long time. 

But he started out cold. Very cold. As I tried to record the last first made shot of Kobe’s career he went 0-for-5, including an airball. Naturally when I put my phone away to preserve the battery life he made a spectacular end-to-end play, blocking a Jazz shot attempt before draining his first bucket draped by Utah players.

For the first time in my life I didn’t even consider getting up for food or drink at a sporting event, as I didn’t want to miss a single moment. 

In between every in-game moment there were tributes played on the big screen from different groups of people; musicians, actors, former teammates, current teammates and rivals (both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were booed accordingly). It was amazing to see the love that Kobe got not just from the NBA, but from all aspects of America. 

Once the game had gone on for about fifteen minutes I looked to my left and saw one of my all-time favorite Lakers, Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf was by no means the greatest player but he was a fan-favorite for his dedication to the game, even after receiving open heart surgery. Surrounding Turiaf were six or seven other former Lakers who won Championships with Kobe, Chris Mihm, D.J. Mbenga, Chris Duhon and so on. 

That realization made it even more special, as former NBA players who could almost certainly get courtside seats had to find seats amongst us ‘normal people’ due to the importance of the moment. 

As the game continued the place just got louder and louder. Three quarters and 37 points later, we were almost certain he couldn’t keep it going and get the Lakers the win. 

Boy, were we wrong.

In true Kobe fashion, he showed us all the unmatchable intensity he displayed throughout his career one last time. 

We all know how the fourth quarter went, and if you don’t just turn on ESPN. They can’t stop talking about it. 

During one of the timeouts the camera focused in on Kobe, forehead covered in sweat. You could tell he was exhausted, but he wouldn’t come out without the win. The legendary Mamba Face made an appearance and I knew he was about to put the game away, as tears welled in my eyes, realizing this was really going to be the end.

23 points. 13 of which were unanswered by the Jazz. The Lakers final 19 points were either scored or assisted by Kobe. And the shots were amazing. 

It was like watching the Kobe of old, back when he couldn’t miss against the Raptors and scored 81. Or when he nailed the game winner over Dwyane Wade and the Heat. Or when he took over the game against the Pacers in the Finals in 2000. And so many other moments that riddled my childhood. 

As time expired Kobe put an exclamation point on the night as he hucked the ball downcourt for Jordan Clarkson to emphatically slam, and the crowd erupted.

Ironic that Kobe’s final NBA play was an assist right?

His former teammates flooded the floor to congratulate him. Shaquille O’Neal. Lamar Odom. Rick Fox. Even Adam Morrison was there. Seeing all of those L.A. legends in one place was a special moment I’ll never forget.

When he took the mic to address the fans, the people behind me started sobbing. I was covered in chills, incredulous that this was actually the end. 

He thanked the fans, his teammates, his family and all the people who impacted his career. The thing I most noted was how happy he seemed. You could tell how incredibly happy he was to be able to spend more time with Vanessa and his girls. It was like he had finally won his sixth championship. 

There has been speculation all season as to whether or not Kobe would actually retire, considering he still had a little left in him. My biggest concern was that a man hellbent on winning more championships than anyone had before could retire without accomplishing that feat. 

Over the last few months I was unsure of whether or not I was happy about him retiring. He was old and his body was suffering, but to me Kobe Bryant WAS basketball. As long as I can remember, Kobe Bryant has been in the NBA. At 23 years old, Kobe Bryant was my generation’s Michael Jordan. I was lucky to watch Jordan play during the final years of his career, but for the majority of my life, I watched basketball and was astounded by the legend of Kobe Bryant. He was my all-time favorite player.

My dad treated me to my first basketball game specifically to watch Kobe play. I had spent countless hours watching him dominate opponents and earn the hatred of people all over the nation. To say this was the end of an era in my life is an understatement, as one of the most influential athletes of my time was saying good-bye. 

And all of a sudden it was over. And I was finally okay with it.

Mamba Out.

(Story continued below…)

Here we are, nearly four years later, and absolute tragedy has struck. This time I am absolutely not okay with it.

The world lost nine people in the blink of an eye. The Bryant, Altobelli, Mauser and Chester families were shaken to their cores. Along with those families, millions of people around the world are in mourning. I find myself mourning with them.

After reflecting on the incident for the last 24 plus hours or so, I’m still feeling the raw emotion of the moment. A man who I formerly perceived as invincible was suddenly taken from the Earth, and I’m left struggling to find the words to describe how I feel.

Since his sudden passing, the world has been flooded with even more tributes. Again, celebrities, former teammates, current players and people from all corners of the world.

I’ve watched dozens of videos of his interviews, where he always reminded us to be great. He urged us to live our lives with the same passion he used to enthrall us on the court for 20 years. To inspire people for greatness. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but don’t be content. Don’t settle for good, make it great. Push as hard as you can, and when it seems like there’s nothing left for you to give, push harder again.

The tributes have been beyond beautiful, and the world has handled this moment with class I previously thought impossible. Amongst all of the tributes: the shot clock violations, retired numbers, highlight montages and heartfelt monologues, I find two common themes: Love and Respect. Each additional Kobe story that hits one of my various timelines not only brings a tear to my eye, but drives me to live my life with the same ferocity that Kobe lived his.

Which is why I’m here, pushing myself through the tears to write this.

Kobe and Gianna’s legacies were far from over. They had so much left to give, as Kobe began to start his newest chapter in life. He was giving himself to the game of basketball once gain, not as a player this time, but as a teacher. Not only for Gianna, but to all of the people who were lucky enough to be subject to his unmatchable knowledge of the game.

There was a lot left in front of them, but the world finds itself in a familiar situation with different implications, as the Bryant family has brought the world together in awe once again.

If you force yourself to look into the future, you will see how incredible the Bryant legacy is. There was more to build, but what was left behind is extraordinary. It’s sad to think, but this event just adds to that legacy. I am curious and excited to see what comes from the countless people who have been inspired by Kobe and this catastrophic time.

The variety of people who’s lives he made an impact on range from Jimmy Fallon and Ellen Degeneres, Dwyane Wade and Shaq, to athletes across all sports: Mike Trout, Neymar and more. But the special thing is, his impact didn’t just reach people with prominence, but countless ‘normal people’ across the world. His impact can be felt purely based off of the worldwide reaction that this event garnered. A truly transcendent human being who had already given so much, has left us with one last thing.

I personally find myself motivated to do something great in my life, in hopes that I can one day touch someone’s life like Kobe touched so many. The event was not only gut-wrenching, but also eye-opening. I am challenging myself to live my life with the ferocity of the Mamba Mentality; not only to make myself better every day, but the people around me. I will love my friends and family with the intensity that Kobe loved both basketball and his family.

It strongly reiterates something that people forget quite often: don’t take any moment for granted. Cherish the moments you have with your loved ones, take appreciation in what you have and never take anything for granted, because life really can vanish in the blink of an eye. Fix the family feuds and mend bridges. Fix both the little and the big things, and just enjoy the people you have while you can.

I was unfortunately never able to meet Kobe Bryant, but the impact he made on my life is nothing short of incredible due to the fact that I never had the pleasure of shaking his hand. I wanted to be like him, but I never excelled at basketball. I wanted to win championship rings and hear thousands of people chant my name, but my sports career ended in high school. Looking at things now, Kobe’s impact to me will forever remain off the court, where he lent me a mentality to live by. He left me with fond memories of game-winning shots and five Lakers Championships, but above all, he left me with memories that I shared with so many loved ones. I imagine that there are hordes of people who find themselves feeling the same way, especially after these last two days.

Ironically, I find myself in the midst of reading Mamba Mentality for the first time as this is all happening. Kobe’s mindset is so legendary that it developed its own meaning for everyone, not just athletes. The “Mamba Mentality” is unique, and I can’t quite find the words to explain it, purely because I think that it is something subjective; something to be deciphered person by person. For me, its main message is to fight for your goal by any means necessary, when you think you’ve gotten enough, reach for more. It is special in it’s aggressive tendencies, but almost feels like poetry when interpreted. It’s a balance of intensity and precision. To be relentless but not reckless. To love without bounds.

For a man who’s legacy was nearly built entirely on the hardwood floor of Staples Center, he’ll be remembered most for the inspiration he left for countless people. His reach extended past just my generation, but also to those who came before and after. Not only for athletes, but for everyone who took the time to appreciate who he was as a person.

Kobe Bryant was a Renaissance man. He spoke multiple languages, and if a new teammate spoke a different language, he took the time to learn enough that he could communicate with them. He admired poetry and literature and he delved into foreign worlds that made him uncomfortable, only to find himself reaching success yet again. What other athlete will ever win an Academy Award? He was goofy and had fun all the while maintaining his air of intensity. He was a consummate professional and the fiercest competitor I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching play any sport, but above all he was the family man of all family men.

Kobe dedicated life after basketball to his wife Vanessa, and their beautiful children. I’m sure there were book deals and broadcasting opportunities – instead, he took the time to start grooming his children, hoping that they would be even greater than him one day. The videos of Kobe commenting on his wife and children are the most upsetting to me, because you can see how much he truly cherishes them. For the Bryant family to lose not only Kobe, but Gianna as well, is an unfathomable pain for me to try and comprehend.

One day, when I’m lucky to have my own children, I will make sure to give them the time that Kobe gave to his children, because you never know when your legacy will end. I will love them with the same fire that Kobe loved his family.

ESPN did us the courtesy of re-airing Kobe’s last game tonight. Initially, I had no plans of re-watching, as I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to control my emotions. I was correct in that, as I sobbed through the entire fourth quarter, especially each time they showed Vanessa, Gianna and Natalia, (Bianka and Capri hadn’t been born yet). I could barely hear his final words to the Staple Center crowd as I buried my face in a pillow.

In retrospect, I’m glad to have re-lived the moment. I cherish the memory of that game, and getting to see him play one last time. I can always look back on that magical moment, as he finished (in true Kobe fashion), better than anyone before him ever had, with happiness. Not only for the fact that I was there, but that I got to appreciate it with people I love, and the city that Kobe Bryant brought together more than any single person before him.

Kobe’s legacy isn’t over, actually quite the opposite. It will continue as long as we remember to live our lives the way he lived his; with the Mamba Mentality. His name will continue to litter the record books, and his accolades will remain unmatched, but Kobe will always be remembered for the lives he touched. We can always look back on the way the world came together in wake of this tragedy to see how much he meant to us all.

My first Kobe memories are as a child, watching him ball, gliding through defenses with ease, and dropping dozens of points on any given opponent. As I got older, so did Kobe. I never imagined there would be an NBA without him. Once he retired, I realized that I had taken for granted all of the time I was given to watch him – 20 years of my life. As I look back on all of my memories revolving around Kobe, I begin to realize that he was bringing people together even then. I will forever fondly reminisce on the times I was able to spend with my friends and family, and the memories that we made, all thanks to Kobe Bean Bryant.

A hero to some, a villain to others, but a legend to all. I have more to say but I don’t ever think I could find enough words to relay the impact that Kobe Bryant had on my life.

Rest in Peace to all of the beautiful souls who lost their lives in the horrible incident on January 26, 2020.

Mamba Forever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: