Kobe Bryant scored 60 incredible points. He carried a miserable Los Angeles Lakers team to an improbable comeback victory.
And with sweat and confetti all over his gold uniform for the final time, he expressed humble thanks to his fans and family for their loving support over two decades.
"What else can I say?" Bryant asked. "Mamba out."
Now that's a Hollywood ending to a remarkable career.
Bryant utterly dominated his final game Wednesday night, wrapping up 20 NBA seasons with one last offensive showcase in the Lakers' 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz.
He scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, posting his first 50-point game since February 2009 and rallying the Lakers from a 15-point deficit to win the final game of the worst season in franchise history.
It was messy, ridiculous and magical — even to the man who did it so many times over 20 years.
"It's hard to believe it happened this way," Bryant said. "I'm still shocked about it."
With the entire Staples Center crowd standing, Bryant made a 3-pointer with 59 seconds left. He hit another with 31 seconds to play, putting the Lakers ahead 97-96. He finished with an assist before checking out for good with 4.1 seconds left in just the Lakers' 17th win of the season.
"The perfect ending would have been a championship," Bryant said with a smile. "But tonight was (me) trying to go out, play hard and try to put on a show as much as I possibly could. It felt good to be able to do that one last time."
Bryant and his teammates conspired for one last omnivorous scoring performance by the third-leading scorer in NBA history. He played 42 minutes and took a career-high 50 shots, his teammates attempting to set him up for points on nearly every possession.
Kobe came up with the fifth highest-scoring game of his career. He became the oldest player to score 50 points in an NBA game with his highest-scoring performance since getting 61 against New York in 2009 — oh, and he had four assists and four rebounds.
The Lakers sprayed him with champagne in the locker room, although he didn't like it: "That's only for championships."
It was still one last classic from the Black Mamba.
"It just didn't surprise me, the way he would go out," said Lakers coach Byron Scott, Bryant's teammate in his rookie season. "Sixty points wasn't a surprise. I knew he had it in him."
The entire night was a tribute to Bryant, who is retiring after 20 seasons, five championship rings and 18 All-Star selections with the Lakers, who honored him before and after the game. Bryant is just the fifth player in NBA history to play 20 seasons, and the first with just one team.
"I think the most important part is that we all stayed together throughout," Bryant said to the crowd. "You'll always be in my heart, and I sincerely, sincerely appreciate it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love you guys."
He also had a few laughs after finishing his 1,346th regular-season game with 33,643 career points.
"The thing that had me cracking up all night long is, I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball," Bryant said with a grin. "And then the last night, they're like, 'Don't pass it!'"
It was a daylong tribute with thousands of fans thronging the downtown streets around Staples Center and chanting his name from early afternoon. Fans lucky enough to get inside Staples Center greeted him with ovations at every opportunity. Magic Johnson anchored a brief pregame tribute by calling Bryant "the biggest and greatest celebrity we've had in this town for 20 years" and "the greatest to wear the purple and gold."
Bryant embraced his roles as a hero and villain throughout his career, and he mentioned the duality in describing his outlook on sports afterward. He had rocky times in Los Angeles, from his sexual assault charge in Colorado in 2003 to his feud with Shaquille O'Neal, who watched the finale at courtside.
It was all forgotten by the time Bryant took the Staples court for the final time.
After blowing kisses and pounding his heart before the game, Bryant got right to work on what the fans wanted to see. He didn't count on the nerves that caused him to miss his first five shots before he pump-faked and finally connected on a jumper.
Bryant found a rhythm then, finishing the first quarter with 15 points on 13 shots. He kept it up after sitting out the first six minutes of the second, finishing with 22 points despite missing a last-minute shot, his 20th of the first half.
The Lakers snapped a six-game skid in their final outing, but their demanding fans could forget about the awful season for one night.
Trey Lyles scored 18 points and Gordon Hayward had 17 for the Jazz, who were eliminated from playoff contention shortly before tipoff by Houston's win over the Sacramento Kings. The Jazz played defense, but Bryant's persistence wore them down.
"We weren't trying to let him go off on a win," said Joe Ingles, who guarded Bryant closely. "As it goes on, it will sink in more, and what he did was pretty impressive. He made some tough shots, too. I don't think we gave him any open looks. He was obviously pretty hyped up for the game. Forty-two minutes and 50 attempts will get you 60, apparently."
— Greg Beacham/AP
Fans consider life without Bryant
Lakers fans will now have to get used to life without him — something many of them have never known.
For two decades Bryant has loomed over the city like no other figure, often literally on billboards and the sides of downtown buildings.
Bryant owned the city in a way no athlete has since Magic Johnson.
Los Angeles is full of movie and TV stars, but they are not local heroes. They belong to the world.
Kobe belonged to LA.
Carlos Hernandez, 25, is among those who have no pre-Bryant memories.
"Kobe Bryant is Los Angeles," said Hernandez, who wore Bryant's high school jersey from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania.
Cesar Ramos, wearing a black Bryant jersey, agreed.
"Kobe means L.A.," he said. "Twenty years of my life I've known him, since I was six."
Bryant lacked Johnson's magnetic, smiling charm or Michael Jordan's iconic image projection, yet he looms as large as both for many of the gathered fans.
"I grew up watching Michael Jordan as a kid, so I only caught the tail end of Michael Jordan's career," said Luis Leon, who was raised as a Laker fan despite living in Phoenix. "So the closest thing to Michael Jordan was Kobe Bryant. The way he carried himself on the court was beautiful. He was the last link to Michael Jordan for my generation."
Leon drove the six hours from Arizona to L.A. to be there despite not having a ticket, or hope of getting one.
The gathered fans were unanimously willing to forget for now that the last Laker team Bryant led was the worst the city has ever seen (17-65).
But unlike Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, another L.A. icon in his final season, Bryant was by no means universally revered here. Many scorned him as a ball hog who took too many shots, and a salary hog who kept the team from signing free agents to stay relevant in his late career.
"I'm a Laker fan again starting tomorrow," said Michele Siqueiros a longtime local who loved Magic Johnson's teams of the 1980s. "As a Showtime Laker fan his selfish disregard for team play is offensive."
There was also the lingering memory of the Colorado rape charges that were dropped in 2004 when his accuser refused to testify just before the beginning of trial. The case could have led to a fall from grace before Bryant's career was halfway done, instead of the swan song he's had for the past season.
Siqueiros said the dropping of the charges didn't convince her of his innocence, and added to her distaste.
"I'm so glad he's gone," she said. "It was long overdue. Why they sacrificed the last few seasons for him is beyond me."
Back among Bryant's admirers outside Staples, Alfonso and Amber Ortiz were among the lucky ones who would get to go inside. They got their tickets in November, when the prices were merely sky-high and not yet astronomical.
"Kobe means everything to me," Alfonso Ortiz said.
The couple's baby, Brooklynn, wore a Lakers bandana on her head as Amber held her. She's not their only child.
"We actually have a son," Amber Ortiz said. "Named Kobe."
— Andrew Dalton/AP