LOS ANGELES -- It was spectacular. It was so self-indulgent. It was so ... Kobe.
Kobe Bryant went out in the most Kobefied way possible. Sixty points on 50 shots. FIFTY SHOTS. He shot shot shot to the very end. He either defied his critics or proved them right. You're welcome to choose. There will be no more parsing of Kobe Bryant to be done around these parts. No more narratives because there's nothing left to write. No more arguing about how he should do it, or how his way compares to others. This is how he did it. Past tense. If the methods were debatable, the results were undeniable, and now finalized. They will hang his jersey on the wall in Staples Center and they will erect a statue of him in the plaza outside because of the way he did it.
And they will talk about this finale for a long, long time.
This was the ultimate Kobe case study. This was Kobe freed from any obligation or repercussions. He had nothing to lose (the Lakers already had dropped a franchise-record 65 games). He had no teammates' egos to assuage, because as soon as the final buzzer sounded they'd no longer be teammates. Besides, he says, they wanted him to go all out in this, the 1,346th and final game of his 20-year career. He noted the irony that he finally got his long-desired unlimited green light at a time he wasn't sure his body could withstand the effort.
He actually got better as the game went on, as he logged a season-high 42 minutes. He missed his first five shots of the game but made his final five of the night, the last of which not only gave the Lakers the lead for good (the actual score of the game had been an afterthought most of the night), it brought him to 8-for-16 in the fourth quarter and 15-for-30 in the second half. For once -- at last -- he gave you both volume and efficiency.
You know what else Kobe has provided in this farewell season? Unity. There were only a few remaining pockets of animosity left for the erstwhile polarizing player. He rolled around the league receiving tributes, accolades and applause in former dens of derision.
"It's like, reversed," Kobe said. "It's a weird year. You go from being the villain to being some type of hero. Then you go from everybody saying pass the ball to shoot the ball. Just really strange."
It's almost as if he had to remind us to dislike him. The latest Nike commercial had him conducting a choir of haters, calling on each to stand and sing his part while Kobe rejoices in the negativity directed at him by fans, Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace.
He no longer hears it naturally, so he had to manufacture it in a commercial. He had to get back to the dynamic he called "extremely necessary for me." The fuel that created the player everyone now wants to celebrate.
"That's what I fed on," Kobe said. "At the time, to be embraced would have been like kryptonite for me. Because that darkness, those dark moments, were what I needed to drive me."
Are we that perpetually distracted as a society that we forget how despised he was by fans throughout the league and how he once divided even the home base, forcing Lakers fans and then ownership to choose between him and Shaquille O'Neal?
That all feels so long ago. Wednesday night Shaq was sitting courtside, enjoying the show like everyone else. "It's awesome," he said at halftime. He lamented that he didn't get one of these farewell tours. The irony is that Shaq could have used it more. He always had a deep desire to be liked, a need for you to laugh at his jokes. On the surface, Kobe didn't care what you thought about him. And here he is being showered with tributes, the same way rich people are always the ones getting tax breaks and free stuff.
But it happened because people wanted to show their appreciation. Nobody forced these fans to fly from around the world to watch him in person before he hung up the sneakers. The scoreboard didn't prompt them to break out the "Ko-be" chants four times before tipoff. This was all payback for the one unquestionably authentic part of the Kobe experience: The work he put in and the effort he put forth. If you were a Lakers fan, he devoted everything to bringing your team victory. If you were an opposing fan, he'd do everything to make you miserable, with the possible side effect of bringing out the best in your team in order to beat him. He brought it so many times that the singular time he really didn't -- the second half of Game 7 in a 2006 first-round series in Phoenix -- still stands out. So 24 minutes out of 20 years of basketball.
Somehow on this night that was expected to be more celebration than competition, Kobe gave the fans the closest thing they could get to their money's worth for tickets that cost up to $25,000 on the resale market. All they wanted to do was see Kobe shoot. There were sighs when he passed, groans of disappointment when his teammates missed. If someone was going to miss, why couldn't it at least be Kobe? Not that there were many other shooting opportunities. The rest of the team had 35 field goal attempts to Kobe's 50.
It was so absurd ... yet so enjoyable. Thirty field goal attempts seemed like a reasonable over/under going in. He hit 20 by halftime. The more the game went on, the more everyone in the building -- Kobe included -- thought, "Why not?"
Why not push the limits on this thing? He was firing at a more rapid rate than the night he scored 81 points, on 46 field goal attempts. Then he passed his career high of 47. (That particular shot-fest in the 2002-03 season and his subsequent comments about having more faith in himself against a triple-team than his teammates with an open jumper, prompted an emotional team meeting in which his teammates pleaded with him to trust them. When he hit 47 on Wednesday it only inspired everyone -- including some of those former teammates who were back in Staples Center to say farewell -- to implore him to go for 50.)
He kept taking them and they kept going in. By the end I broke all decorum and started hitting all the media members around me with an Elaine-from-Seinfeld "Get out!" shove whenever Kobe got another bucket.
You can question the sincerity of Kobe's constant nice-guy persona in his last go-around, or wonder why he's getting a pass when the worst stretch in his beloved Laker franchise's history occurred under his watch. Kobe's answer to everything was always to keep shooting, and he shot more than he ever had before Wednesday. And it was glorious.
For once you didn't analyze or critique. You just took it all in and probably thought the same thing as Byron Scott: "You just go, 'Damn. This kid, he's something else.'"