Culture

Mamba Out: The Beautiful Mess of Kobe's Farewell

By Brandon Handelsman

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Who decides which athletes get the Derek Jeter #RE2PECT farewell tour? After all, players retire every year, and yet, Wednesday was unequivocally #mambaday. Is Tim Duncan really going to get this rolled-out red carpet treatment when he announces his retirement by throwing his kicks over a telephone wire in the Virgin Islands and riding a donkey into dusk? No chance! But, of course, there’s a freaking Kobe Bryant Snapchat filter and all of coastal China is bugging. So, how does an athlete’s retirement reach cultural zeitgeist the way Kobe’s has? What’s going on?!

What transpired at Staples Center the other night was a sad, surreal, self-indulgent spectacle. It was quintessential Kobe. This is a life-long Laker fan’s attempt to reconcile the strangely perfect final NBA game of a borderline sociopathic, fundamentally flawed, legendary basketball player.  

Pre-Game: Bean

A sellout crowd and between 400 to 500 credentialed media members are on hand at Staples Center in what coach/3-point abolitionist Byron Scott said he expected to be a “crazy evening.” What we ultimately got was the funhouse mirror version of the 81 game combined with Game 7 against Boston in 2010 but for now Flea is playing the national anthem. Yes, Red Hot Chili Peppers Bassist Flea is playing the national anthem, sans vocals thankfully [1]. Things are definitely off to a crazy start.

Magic Johnson takes center court and the mic to suck Kobe’s johnson for a little [2]. Three video tributes later I have to remind myself there is a basketball game to be played after this circus. The only thing that could make this feel bigger would be Obama showing up. I find myself feeling surprised he’s not there, actually.

Kobe’s not even warming up with his teammates. You already know he doesn’t have any of these imbeciles’ numbers. Maybe Metta World Peace’s, but he’s definitely about to block him after one more late night call about buying a zoo together in Japan.

Also, lost in all the hoopla is another legend’s imminent retirement: Gary Vitti’s! For all his mental toughness and alien-like pain tolerance, there’s no way Kobe plays through his lacerated index finger, sprained rotator cuff, and countless other injuries [3] without the longtime Lakers athletic trainer/warlock. D’Angelo Russell’s probably wondering why Vitti couldn’t mend his broken relationship with his teammates. I digress…on to the game.

1st Quarter: Vino

It’s clear from the tip that the Lakers are going to stick to Scott’s “just give the damn ball to Kobe” game plan. Kobe bricks his first five shot attempts as the Lakers don’t score for the initial six minutes of gameplay. I’m inclined to switch over to the Warriors game where Steph Curry is a piping hot 7-10 from three. I feel shitty about this but the Lakers have yet to score! The building appears to deflate as people begin to realize they paid as much as $25,000 minimum for this. Finally, Roy Hibbert puts the Lakeshow on the board with an unspectacular lay-up [4].

And then, all of a sudden, Vino Kobe shows up in a way that makes you think shit Kobe, why couldn’t you have just hung around in a reserve role these last couple years and do that every once in awhile? Kobe miraculously finishes the quarter 5/12 from the field. The Lakers are down two. The crowd is delirious. I’m wary. Call me a cynic, but the delirium feels more sad and tired than anything.

2nd Quarter: Kob-Me

After a mostly forgetful second period, a scene all too familiar materializes. Clock is winding down. Kobe has the ball. 12 seconds left. The crowd rises to its feet, anticipating more last second heroics from Mr. Clutch. Kobe’s reputation as the best closer in the game has taken a hit from advanced analytics junkies in recent years, but the man undeniably has cojones. Fuck it, I’ll indulge. I’m riding with Kobe. I want him taking the last shot.

It feels like a playoff atmosphere in Staples Center even though this Kobe-led Laker squad is wrapping up the worst season in franchise history. The Lakers haven’t had a reason to cheer for five years, and that’s largely Kobe’s fault. Part of it also falls on the incapable Jim and Jeanie buss. Part of it is David Stern’s for nixing the Chris Paul trade [5]. Regardless, a lot of it is due to Kobe’s inability to accept his defeat at the hands of Father Time, which, in turn, is hard but necessary to admit as a Kobe fan. His historically bad albatross of a contract [6] has, unfortunately, held the franchise hostage in recent years and has stalled their rebuilding process.

Five seconds remaining. Kobe makes his move. He backs down his defender. Staple Center holds its collective breath. Kobe goes to his patented turnaround, fadeaway jumper and…the shot rims out. Maybe the statheads are right.

Kobe has 20 points on 22 shots and the Lakers are down 15 in an entirely meaningless game. Peyton Manning just had a Super Bowl-winning send-off. Hard to fathom that this is how my childhood hero [7] is going out.

3rd Quarter: Mr. 81

Midway through the third, Kobe airballs two shots in a row. Mike Tirico justifies the ridiculousness of this volume shooting by saying he’s worked hard for his 28 points [8].

Then, just when you thought the self-proclaimed “dinosaur” had lost his legs, Kobe hits a three with Gordon Hayward all over him. I mean, the dude’s fingers couldn’t be closer to poking out Kobe’s eyes. And he drains it. I squeal. I can’t help it. I love this man. This is Kobe going out in the most Kobe way imaginable.

This inflection point in the game was the moment I skid into the dirt and embraced the absurdity of Kobe finally playing in a vacuum with a unlimited green light. All anyone wanted to see last night was Kobe shoot. For once we didn’t analyze or critique Kobe’s ball-hogging nature. Last night we were all Byron Scott. And it was glorious.

4th Quarter: The Black Mamba

Meanwhile, in NorCal, Curry and the Warriors are hella cruising to their intergalactically historic 73rd win of the season. Against all rationale, Kobe willing the Lakers to their 17th feels bigger.

Somehow, the purple and gold are now within striking distance. Kobe swoops to the basket for his 50th and 51st points of the game. He’s now the first player to end his career with a 50 point game. Lakers down four. I want tacos!

I feel as though I’ve gotten lost in the sauce and stumbled into a 2006 time-warp. This is isolation offense fully-realized in the pace and space era. The Warriors and Spurs are blitzing the league with intelligent spacing, impeccable passing, and ridiculous three point shooting. This is how you win today in the modern NBA: brains over brawn. Kobe never got the memo and he is on his way to another wildly inefficient, high volume shooting performance. This brand of iso-hero ball is over and Kobe is taking it with him after this game. I’m going to miss it.

Kobe drills another three to bring the game within one. Timeout Jazz [9]. Kobe heads to the bench and hangs his sweat-drenched head, huffing and puffing. Eyes closed and clenching his teeth so hard it’s a shock he hasn’t grated them away over the years. I find myself wondering, how is this 37-year-old managing to block out the extravaganza that surrounds him and stay focused? Then I remember my first grade teacher, Ms. Nowitz, explaining to my classmates and I how Kobe could tune out the noise if he had to shoot a free throw while on the toilet with a horse up his butt. Kobe grits his teeth and returns to the court and my naive ass can’t help but still believe Ms. Nowitz.

D’Angelo Russell rebounds the ball off a Utah miss and scampers to give the ball to Kobe faster than you can say Smush Parker. There’s a minute left in this game everyone in the building knows no one else is even touching the rock. Kobe nails a pull-up jump shot from the top of the key, the very same spot where he won that playoff game against the Suns and went on to rip his shirt off. Now it really feels like 2006. I can smell the tacos.

Kobe’s sinks two free throws for 60 [10] then outlet passes to Jordan Clarkson to pass 100 for the team [11]. Game. Set. Match. There’s 4.1 seconds left and Kobe leaves the court for the last time to a standing ovation. He daps up his teammates and coaching staff but leaves Roy Hibbert hanging for a high five. Of course he does. With purple and gold confetti raining down he takes the mic, thanks the fans, and finishes with a classic “Mamba Out” [12]. He walks by Shaq to give DJ Mbenga (!!!) a long embrace. It’s so Kobe to do something like that. All of it.

Now I’m standing and clapping too. Why do I feel like we just won a championship? Who else could steal this night from Golden State, relegating a team cementing their legacy as the best team of all time to backpage news? This is like watching a movie. And Kobe knows it. Afterall, he planned this! From the moment he announced this would be his last year, that son of bitch flipped the narrative of the entire season. Kobe announced that he was going to retire after starting out the season shooting 29.6 percent in his first 17 games. At that point, he was on pace for one of the worst statistical seasons in NBA history in many categories. Kobe knew that he needed to shift the narrative and he delivered. The Black Mamba struck again, for one last iconic time, in a manner patently true to himself and so singularly him.

Sixty points on 50 shots. Of course he got the Jeter treatment.

This is weird as shit for me. I just saw Kobe Bryant play professional basketball for the last time ever. I’ve known this was coming for a while but man…if my childhood wasn’t over before, it certainly is now.

Brandon Handelsman’s prized possessions are his signed, size 16 Vladimir Radmanovich game worn Air Forces and a set of Laker’s Russian Dolls from the dismal ‘05-‘06 Lakers season (featuring Chris Mihm as the second-biggest doll :/). His dog’s name is Kobe, but his sisters insist this is a coincidence.

Footnotes

  1. For the record, I listen to the Chilli Peppers “Under the Bridge” every time I take off from LAX. So this much at least, feels right.
  2. It seems inconceivable today, but no one would even shake Magic’s hand after he retired due to his HIV bombshell, at a time when we just didn’t know enough about HIV AIDS. Yes, he had the ‘92 All Star Game farewell. Still, Magic must’ve been thinking, “Man, where’s my Snapchat filter?” Rightfully, so.
  3. Actually, it’s 22.
  4. C’mon! You’re 7’3” dude…
  5. SERIOUSLY, NO ONE TALKS ABOUT THAT!
  6. 2-year deal, worth $48.5 million.
  7. Friends of mine have brought it to my attention recently that Kobe is a great athlete, but not a hero. They’re not wrong.  
  8. Mind you, on 28 shots. No surprise that the media’s a little more forgiving to Los Angeles’ prodigal son now than after those other air balls against Utah.
  9. Oh yea, by the way, there was another team playing in this game: The Utah Jazz! Takes two to tango…right?
  10. S/o Ms. Nowitz, you’re a genius
  11. TACOS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  12. Only minutes later, “Mamba Out” T-Shirts were selling on Kobe’s official site. Fucking marketing genius. Pick him up, Fabletics!