LOS ANGELES — And now, the end is here, and Kobe Bryant has faced his final curtain, and in typical Black Mamba fashion, he blew the roof off Staples Center.
Bryant's 1,556th game was his last on Wednesday as the legendary career of one of basketball's finest specimens came to a sensational and stunning end: 60 points. 50 shots, and a game-winning jumper in the Lakers thrilling come-from-behind 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz.
It was chaotic, often ugly, but in the end, nobody will remember how many shots he took, or what the Lakers final record was, heck, nobody will even remember who the opponent was, but they will always remember Bryant's 60-point swan song.
As millions of microphones and accolades lay before him at center court, Bryant spoke to a raucous sellout crowd, many of which paid thousands of dollars just to be inside the building, piercing our eardrums with every bucket he made.
"Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!" they chanted and cheered, until their hero finally spoke. He said it clear. He stated his case, of which I'm certain.
"I can't believe how fast 20 years went by. We've been through our ups and we've been through our downs. I think the most important part is that we stayed together throughout."
That much is true. Twenty years with the same franchise, longer than anybody else in NBA history. He's lived a basketball life that’s full: five championships, 18 All-Star appearances, two gold medals, one NBA MVP. He's traveled each and every highway from the 101 to the Great Wall of China, but when he takes off that purple and gold jersey for the final time, he can proudly say, "I did it my way."
Regrets? Sure, he's had a few; the 2004 sexual assault case, breaking up the dynamic duo with Shaquille O'Neal, demanding a trade in 2007, and playing nearly 48 minutes a night in 2013 only to tear his Achilles tendon, but then again, they're too few to mention. Especially, on this night.
Bryant did what he had to do to achieve basketball immortality, and his foresight saw it through without exemption. He played hurt, battled through injuries, returned from not one, but two season-ending surgeries, but most of all, he hung banners.
Even in his 20th and final NBA season, Bryant always had the finish line in site. This night. In front of his home crowd at Staples Center — a fitting place for one of the greatest sport's entertainers the world has ever seen to put on a spectacle of basketball purity, passion and prestige — the same hardwood court he threw an alley-oop to O'Neal in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals, a play that embarked a franchise upon a journey that would lead to five NBA titles and seven Finals appearances, a play that donned a dynasty.
It was the same court that saw an 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors, and a Game 7 victory over the rival Boston Celtics. So fittingly, it was in this historic dwelling, that he would say goodbye.
With the help of his head coach, Byron Scott, he planned each charted course, each careful step along the 2016 NBA regular season. All to make sure that he reached this night, this epic conclusion to a career, to ensure he walked off that same court on his own two feet and be able to say, "I did it my way."
So over the course of his final 48 minutes, with nerves and anxiety eating away at his heart, there were times, I'm sure you knew, that it seemed like he'd bit off more than he could chew.
Whether it was his 0-for-4 start, or when he couldn't find his legs in the fourth quarter, missing jumper after jumper, punctuated by a missed layup and a 10-point deficit, Kobe persevered. Just like he always did, time and time again for the past two decades. He listened to the roar of the crowd, he found the fire from within, and he let it fuel him as he ate up and spit out every Jazz defender they sent at him. Double-teams, triple-teams, he faced it all, he stood tall, he did it his way.
As a lifelong Laker fan who at the age of two sat in the original Cheers bar in Boston, sporting a Magic Johnson jersey and a baby bottle, I've lived and died by the purple and gold. So over the course of this one, meaningless, yet so iconic game, I loved, I laughed, I cried, and I cheered. Like Kobe, I've had my full share of losing, but also like Bryant, as he hoisted shot-after-shot, I couldn't help but find it all amusing.
To think, we did that together, me and every other Mamba fan of Laker Nation around the world. We watched it all, every shot, every staredown, every rim-rattling dunk, every drop of sweat and ounce of blood. As Kobe poured it all out on the court for us, we were with him.
So for one last time, with 31 seconds left on the clock, we watched him rise up and hit the game-winning basket. Just like he's done countless times in his Hall of Fame career. He sealed it, the same way he did seconds after tearing his Achilles, with two swished free throws.
"This has been absolutely beautiful," he said after the game as the hailstorm of confetti fell down upon his brow, just like it did when he stood on the scorers' table after Game 7 in 2010, basketball in hand. "I can't believe it's come to an end."
Neither can we Kobe. But let the record show, you took your blows, and did it your way.
"Yes, it was my way."
When Michael isn't channeling his inner Frank Sinatra on the page, he is a sports writer for NBC Los Angeles.