Los Angeles (AFP) – Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant delivered a Hollywood ending as the curtain came down on his glittering 20-year NBA career on Wednesday in a blockbuster finale.
On a night of searing emotion at a packed Staples Center, the 37-year-old signed off with a mammoth 60 points, including a final burst of scoring to inspire a 101-96 comeback victory over the Utah Jazz.
A galaxy of A-list celebrities — from Jack Nicholson to David Beckham — roared their approval from courtside as Bryant exited with a perfectly scripted final act.
“Man, I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by, this is crazy,” Bryant told his adoring fans. “What can I say? Mamba out.”
A sell-out crowd of 19,060 fans had packed into the Staples Center to watch Bryant lace up for the 1,566th and last time.
“Tonight was trying to go out, playing hard and putting on a show as much as I possibly could. It felt good to be able to do that one last time,” Bryant said.
“The coolest thing is that my kids actually saw me play like I used to play.”
Tickets for the game were the most expensive in basketball history, according to online exchange StubHub.com, which sold one pair of courtside seats for a staggering $27,500 each.
Lakers legend Magic Johnson had acted as master of ceremonies for a lengthy pre-game tribute that featured video messages from some of the NBA’s most recognizable figures.
“We are here to celebrate greatness for 20 years,” Johnson told the crowd.
“He’s not only a great and unbelievable sports icon but he’s already the greatest to wear the purple and gold.”
– ‘Melancholy’ Nicholson –
Oscar-winning actor Nicholson — a regular presence at courtside during the Bryant era — wrapped up a montage of video messages.
“Kobe, goodbye, I think I might retire with you, I’m not sure,” said Nicholson.
Nicholson later described Bryant’s retirement as a “melancholy” moment.
“It’s like anything — you don’t know what you had until you don’t have it,” Nicholson told NBA TV. “Fortunately we do know what we had and he’s been great all the way.”
Football icon Beckham meanwhile expressed delight at the manner of Bryant’s departure.
“Every wanted him to go out like this,” Beckham said. “The way he’s gone out tonight is incredible.”
Lakers coach Byron Scott told his team they had “witnessed history.”
“I hope they savor the moment. I hope they realize that man gave everything he could for 20 years and he gave it again tonight,” Scott said.
Excitement for Bryant’s farewell game had built throughout the day, with the streets surrounding the Staples Center transformed into a sea of purple and gold as thousands of fans thronged the area.
“It’s like a family member, we spent $3,000 on two tickets, we are ready to spend a lot of money to see history,” one Lakers fan, Miguel, told AFP.
Los Angeles transport officials meanwhile got into the spirit of celebration, renaming a metro station near the Staples Center “Kobe Station” for the day.
On Twitter, fans were invited to share their memories under the trending hashtag “#MambaDay”, a reference to Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname.
As day gave way to dusk, Los Angeles City Hall was lit up in the Lakers’ iconic colors of purple and gold.
Announcing the gesture earlier in the day, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson declared the move a fitting tribute to the retiring star.
“The City of Angels owes Kobe Bryant a debt of gratitude for sharing with us 20 remarkable years of electrifying dedication and commitment to the city, our fans and communities,” said Wesson.
“His work ethic, hustle and quest for championships ensures his place in the history books – there will never be another Kobe Bryant.”