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Volume 66 Number 6

Kobe’s final goodbye: No one ever did 0 to 60 like that

by Jeff Fellenzer - 2016-04-27


That’s how a handful of incredibly fortunate students in my “Sports, Business, Media” and “Sports and Media Technology” classes at USC described the aura of attending the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year NBA career, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, two weeks ago against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center…a night highlighted by a stunning, 60-point outburst and a dramatic victory.

How could a 37-year-old man--on his last legs while finishing up an injury-ravaged final two seasons, who most fans hoped could just go out with some sense of dignity, perhaps score in double figures--drop a number more suited to Michael Jordan in his prime…or maybe Steph Curry on all cylinders today? And score 13 of those points in the final two minutes, with his team down by 10, including 23 in the fourth quarter?

And speaking of Curry, how could any other game have come close to overshadowing the accomplishment of Curry’s Golden State Warriors, who broke the NBA single-season record for victories on the very same night that Kobe took his final curtain call, finishing an almost unimaginable 73-9, topping the 72-10 mark of Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

The beauty of Kobe Bean Bryant (his middle name is a reference to his NBA-playing father Joe Bryant’s nickname, Jellybean) was that his greatness over two decades so often transcended expectations or predictability. Right down to the last night.

The great ones always seem to find ways to push their own personal boundaries, usually with a level of talent and a work ethic that is off the charts. When your team’s best player is also its hardest worker, you have a special combination.

Bryant didn’t even start for the Lakers until his third season, yet he made up for the lost time and finished his career with five NBA championships, 18 All-Star Games, an NBA MVP award (he probably deserved more), an NBA Finals MVP, and as the No. 3 scorer in history (33,643 points), behind only Karl Malone and No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).

He is the most polarizing figure in L.A. sports history, with seemingly as many detractors as worshipers. Love him or loathe him, people always had an unwavering opinion: “Too selfish.” “Ball hog.” “Aloof.” “A cold-blooded assassin.” “As good as Jordan.” “Fearless.” “The greatest Laker of all time” (according to no less than Magic Johnson, who said it in a pregame tribute before Kobe went otherworldly in his last game).

Bryant rarely took a practice off, let alone a game. It killed him to lose, and he expected no less from his teammates, which may have been part of the problem for some of them. Geniuses don’t suffer fools easily.

Having grown up in a sports-minded family in Long Beach, and during the course of a career encompassing 30-plus years in sports media and sports business, I have been witness in person to enough epic games and moments to last three lifetimes: five Super Bowls and eight World Series, including Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run in Game 1 of the 1988 Series that propelled the Dodgers to their last world championship, and more than 40 Rose Bowls. I’ve seen the Lakers win two world championships, the Angels win their only World Series, UCLA capture three NCAA basketball championships, and USC clinch national football titles. I’m honored to have voted for the Heisman Trophy, presented annually to the best player in college football, since 2007.

I’ll never forget sitting in Hall of Fame basketball coach and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient John Wooden’s Encino home about 10 years ago, on a random weekday afternoon, when Kareem showed up to have his former coach and surrogate father sign some basketballs for a charity auction. So there I was, thinking, OK, the greatest coach of all time in any sport is sitting across from me…next to the greatest scorer in NBA history. Uh, this is a pretty cool deal…

And still, I’m not sure how many of those amazing moments could be ranked ahead of Kobe Bryant draining shots while fueling a comeback victory in his final NBA game by scoring 60 points…at age 37. Only in Hollywood could someone have dared turn in such a script. And then watch it play out in real time.

So how will Kobe be remembered? To find out what it was like to game-plan against him, I asked my friend Brett Gunning, an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets the past nine seasons:

“I had a chance to watch Kobe up close during my first year in the NBA, in a seven-game series against the Rockets, second round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs.

“What stood out to me the most were two things: the level of physicality he played at was one notch below starting a fight…that’s how ferocious he was. People don’t realize how hard he competed.

“Second, he played the game with such an inner confidence. It didn’t matter how many shots he missed, he never hesitated taking the next one…and he expected every shot to go in.”

Recalling how lively the debates always were when the topic of Kobe vs. LeBron James in their primes was broached, I asked Gunning who he would choose for his team if he had to pick between the two superstars?

“I would go with Kobe,” he said without hesitation. “He lived for the big moments…and he’s got five [NBA Championship] rings to show for it.”

So just as we will say goodbye to another seemingly irreplaceable L.A. icon after this season, Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, who is in his 67th and final season with the team dating back to Brooklyn--and whose skills as a wordsmith and storyteller remain second to none--rather than bemoan the loss, let’s just be grateful for the chance we had to watch the historic, once-in-a-generation work of a truly magnificent artist.

Jeff Fellenzer is faculty advisor of The Mainsheet and a full-time professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, where he teaches “Sports, Business, Media” and “Sports and Media Technology.”


Article Keywords:

media, final, game, kobe, bryant, nba, los, last, score, team, season, laker, world, series, championship, coach, sport

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