Friend of Down on the Block Jay Dulla traveled over 1,400 miles to witness the career finale of his basketball hero, Kobe Bean Bryant. He dutifully recounts his experience below for those of us who could only tune in on ESPN2. Enjoy!
Coming Down Off A High / Was Kobe Worth the Trip?
By: Jay Dulla
Monday, April 11
I sat in front of my laptop with my eyes fixated on the screen. The web page I was looking at was a ticket resale site and my mouse was hovering over the “Purchase Ticket” button for an $855 (including all fees) ticket for a seat in the upper corner section of Staples Center. This ticket was for the Lakers game two days later on what would be Kobe Bryant’s final game. I couldn’t pull the trigger. One tab over, I had a yet-to-be-purchased flight itinerary queued up for a relatively cheap, last-minute flight to and from Los Angeles should I ever decide to go through with the first purchase. I could feel something holding me back. It was an ever-lingering, simple question: Will this all be worth it?
Up to this point, I had never spent more than $100 on a sports ticket. So $855 was a huge deal. I’m an average guy with enough money to pay his bills every time they’re due. Triple-digit expenses are something I leave for car repairs, student loan repayments and household bills. Even that $100 ticket was a bit of an outlier. Want to guess who I paid to see that time? Yep, Kobe. It was for a Dec. 11 game in San Antonio against the Spurs (the closest basketball team to my hometown of Austin) less than two weeks after he announced this would be his last season. After his retirement announcement, I had announced on social media that I was planning to make the trip to LA for the first time in about 18 years just to see his last game. But even I was skeptical as Kobe hadn’t made it through an entire basketball season in several years. The last time he made it to April was three seasons ago. So I jumped on that particular San Antonio trip, knowing it wasn’t the Lakers’ final trip to San Antonio this season but figuring he might not make it to February 6 (the date of Kobe’s final game in the Alamo). So my friend, who’s a Spurs fan, and I put up the money to see him. And it was nice but I left feeling a bit unfulfilled and wondering whether it was worth $100 to see him score 12 points in a 22-point Lakers loss.
Back to April 11. I’m checking the Twitter page of the Lakers for injury updates. The last thing I wanted was to purchase the ticket, find out he got injured minutes later rendering him unable to play the final game and be on the hook for an $855 ticket I couldn’t resell. Kobe sat out a few games here and there throughout the season but he never shut it down for good. His minutes were being managed appropriately, which is what I wish Mike D’Antoni would’ve done three seasons ago. Instead D’Antoni let Kobe rack up big minutes every single game in his 17th season, leading to the Achilles rupture from which he never fully recovered. But that’s all in the past now. No injury announcements this time, meaning he made it through the game, and thus the season, and would therefore be able to play his final game. As if sensing this was finally going to happen for Kobe, the ticket prices reacted accordingly and now a ticket to the game was $875. They weren’t coming down. This was it. *Click*. I purchased the ticket. *Click Click*. I purchased the flight. I was going to LA….hopefully it’d be worth it.
Wednesday, April 13
It’s a little over two hours until game time and I’m sitting in a coffee shop a couple blocks from Staples Center reflecting on my day. My plane ticket required that I fly out of Dallas/Fort Worth. So I’d left my house about 1:30 that morning, drove to the airport, flew non-stop to LA, and hung out up the coast in Santa Monica until the afternoon. Finally I made the trip to downtown LA. My phone was charged to 75%, what I’d hoped would be enough juice for some photos and video. I went into the bathroom and changed into my jersey. My trip was only for 24 hours so everything I brought with me was carried in a small backpack. Once dressed, I walked out the doors and down the street.
It was surreal to me to be in an area where everyone was supporting my team. Lakers fans are pretty much everywhere, so even in all the road venues where I was able to catch the Lakers in person, I never felt alone. But we were still always in the minority. On this day, everybody walking down the street was donning Lakers gear. I walked up on LA Live, the entertainment complex that sits across the way from Staples Center. There was no space to walk comfortably. There was a mass of people hanging out, playing games, taking photos and signing the “Thank You Kobe” walls situated around the outside of the arena. It was a feeling similar to a playoff game or game one of the season when everybody’s just excited to have basketball back. The windows of Staples Center were covered on every side with ground to roof images of Kobe. A mini stage was set up in the middle of the plaza and there was a small concert. Balloons encircled the crowd, creating a corridor of pre-game buzz the likes of which you’d never normally see for a team that was 16-65. But I knew, as well as everyone else, this was not a normal night. Tonight we were saying goodbye to an icon. This wasn’t a celebration of mediocrity. This was revelry in the last stint of what has been a long, high-achieving career full of accolades that most other NBA players, or pro athletes in general, will never obtain. So before getting in line, I made sure to follow suit and milled around the plaza taking photos and video with the rest of Laker Nation.
Once in the venue, I sat down with my commemorative book, lanyard and t-shirt and watched the warm-ups. It was less than 30 minutes to game time and the arena was filling in quickly. Everybody wanted to take in the game in its entirety. In a flash, it was time for tipoff. This was it!
The lights went out and the crowd went crazy. Drapes fell from the scoreboard and a video projection played across the sheets. Highlights from an illustrious career. Magic Johnson took to the mic when it was over and introduced another video. Following the Lakers this season, I’ve heard about almost every team doing some sort of tribute to Kobe. I wondered how much is too much? What effect do these tributes have on the psyche of Kobe, his teammates and the teams they were playing against? My take was that it was negligible for the simple fact that even before Kobe announced his retirement, it was clearly evident the Lakers were still in the rebuilding stage and wouldn’t have a competitive team this season. But tonight? Tonight could be different because it is the last night. It’s the last tribute. It’s the final time to say thank you and goodbye.
Kobe comes out. Salutes the crowd. Doesn’t speak. He’s still in game mode. National anthem (by Flea). Player intros for the other team (the Utah Jazz, but for tonight they may as well be nameless and faceless). Another mini video package. Laker intros. KOBE INTRO! Hearing his name for the final time, the crowd’s even more amped. Now it’s go time!
The Jazz win the tip. They miss their shot. And down the floor come the Lakers. Behind me someone shouts, “Give it to Kobe!” No one’s going to hear anybody from the cheap seats. But the sentiment was felt throughout the entire arena. This is Kobe’s last game. We’re all here to see him. Pass the ball to Kobe! Kobe gets the ball and the crowd’s elated. He jacks up a three. *Miss*. A collective moan echoes through the crowd. Kobe had one of the worst shooting percentages in the league this season. He’s been known throughout his career as a high volume shooter but his percentages have never been as low as they were this year. After a little back and forth, there’s a timeout. About half the first quarter has been played and it’s just 6-4, Utah. Kobe is 0-5 to start this game. This might be a long night, if for nothing else than both teams are playing poorly. With a little more than five minutes to go, Kobe finally makes his first basket. As one can imagine, the crowd gives a thunderous cheer. We all just want Kobe to go out with a good game. And as if the monkey is off his back and the mental block is now gone, the scoring commences. And it comes in a successive fashion. Kobe hits his next four field goals en route to a 15-point first quarter. The crowd is now fully engaged and we’re hoping for something great.
Kobe rests the first half of the second quarter. The young team shows what it has in store for the future. There is some great talent here but nothing yet that can compete with what has become an extremely strong and dominant Western Conference. We’ll see what the future holds for this team in the draft and free agency but for now…Kobe! He comes back halfway through the second quarter and has a relatively quiet seven points. We hit halftime.
Throughout a typical sporting event, you’ll have breaks full of dancers, kiss cams and giveaways. Tonight’s game was limited in those aspects. There were a ton of video highlights and tributes. Halftime was pretty much par for the course.
The second half begins. Kobe is on the court and we’re hoping for a great finish.
What was pretty indicative throughout the night was that the Lakers could have a chance to win this game if they simply played good basketball. However, asking for good basketball from the Lakers proved difficult, as they had just gone through their worst season ever. They were down by 15 at the half. Not impossible to overcome but if they were to win and send Kobe out on a high note, they’d have to dig in now and finish this quarter strong. Kobe was up to the task as he cut the deficit to single digits. The Jazz responded and were able to go back up 12 but the Lakers kept coming. The quarter finished with the Lakers down nine points and Kobe adding another 15 to his total for the night.
The fourth quarter started with everyone in the building well aware that Kobe had 37 points and could easily get to 40 with a basket, and if he got hot, maybe 50. I guess we couldn’t predict what a treat awaited us in the final quarter of a storied career. About two and a half minutes in , Kobe hits a three. 40! Another three! A couple minutes later, a two-pointer. 45 points! Let’s just cheer him on to 50. There’s just over five minutes left. That’ll be plenty of time to score five points. And hey, guess what! It’s a three-point game. The Lakers could win with Kobe scoring 50. How cool would that be?
The feeling of joy was short-lived as the Lakers had a few bad possessions and suddenly found themselves down by 10 with just under three and a half minutes to go. Kobe might score 50 but it’d be a loss and a sour note to go out on for a champ. Kobe hits a two to cut the deficit to eight. Jazz respond to go up 10. Kobe hits a few free throws and now he’s at 49 points. He hits a layup and the crowd goes crazy. 51 points! And it’s a six-point game with just under two minutes to play. The win-win scenario is back on track. Kobe hits another two, then a three with 59 seconds to go. 56 points!!! 60??? Is 60 possibly in play? The man was just at 37 when we started the quarter and all we hoped to see was 40. Kobe hits the go-ahead jumper with 30 seconds to go. 58!!! He could definitely hit 60. The Jazz miss their next shot and Kobe comes down the floor and gets fouled. The Jazz have a foul to give. Kobe gets the ball again. The Jazz foul to stop the clock. Kobe’s going to the line. “MVP” chants rain down on the 5-time champion. Free throw one….check! 59. Free throw two…check! 60! WOW! Just wow! “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
Some people think that MVP chants are silly for players who aren’t in the MVP race that year. I look at it like I’m talking about the president. Once president, always president. Once MVP, always MVP. No one can take that away from you. No one can take it away from Kobe. He checked out with 4.1 seconds left to go in the game, leaving to thunderous applause and the admiration of many both inside the venue and around the world. To put into perspective what kind of moment this was, the lead story was Kobe on a night when another team just up the California coast set the record for most wins in an NBA season. It was incredible, truly incredible.
Now, most Kobe stories come with their detractors. Skeptics and Kobe-haters will point out the fact that the other team could’ve played better defense. It’s true- if a team wanted to really stop Kobe from scoring 60 points, they could have easily double- or triple-teamed him whenever he touched the ball. It’s not as if the Jazz played terrible defense but if they were playing “smart defense” they would have keyed in pretty quickly on the guy doing the majority of the shooting that night. But they didn’t. Their season was over as well, having just been eliminated from the playoffs minutes before the game and they probably weren’t in the mood to go all out to spoil Kobe’s sendoff. In the movies, you’re often required to suspend your disbelief for the purpose of being entertained. That night, in Hollywood no less, we were asked to suspend our disbelief that, in 2016, one team would allow a single player to go off for 60 points in his final game. And we were somewhat in compliance. But then, miraculously, our hero actually did do something incredible. In real life! No one else scored as many points in a game the entire season. Defense or no defense, 60 points was an amazing achievement. And I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. When someone asks me where I was when the Warriors broke the record for the most wins in a season, I’ll say I was right where I should’ve been: in Staples Center, watching Kobe Bryant drop 60 in his final game.
The streamers fell and the confetti blew and Kobe’s career came to an end. He hugged teammates, past and present, as well as others important to his journey before giving a speech to the crowd. He thanked the fans, the organization and his family, then departed with a very appropriate “Mamba out!”, before making his way back to the locker room. I sat in my seat and took everything in until I was told I had to clear out of the arena.
Fans were in great spirits. People were breaking out into random “Ko-be!” chants in the middle of the plaza. Everyone had a smile on their face. It was also the only time I had been to a sporting event where I didn’t see a fan shirt or jersey for the other team. So it was pretty safe to say the elation was unanimous.
I ended the night at a diner and slept over at the house of a friend who happens to live in LA. The next day I came back to Texas. It is now a week since I bought my tickets. So I ask myself now, “Was the Kobe trip worth it?”
Yes, yes it was! I got to see one of my favorite athletes end his career with an incredible individual performance and give his fans one last taste of his greatness. I have pictures. I have video. I even recorded the game and watched the TV broadcast for the first time last night. I still felt giddy in those incredible last few moments. But more important than the documented images is the memory of a man completing a sensational feat while I watched a couple hundred feet away. I’ll never forget that. Those memories and feelings are etched in my mind. And so it is with this piece that I’ll take my opportunity to say…
Thank You Kobe!