LOS ANGELES, CA – MARCH 6: Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during the basketball game against Golden State Warriors at Staples Center March 6, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Welcome to the Greatest Moment series at Last Word on Pro Basketball, where we’ll present to you each NBA team’s greatest moment of the 21st century. From draft lottery luck, to a franchise-changing trade, to the sweet taste of a championship, every NBA team has had its own special moment to look back on.

In this edition, we will relive the greatest Los Angeles Lakers moment of the 21st century: Kobe Bryant’s final game.

Greatest Los Angeles Lakers moment of the 21st century: Kobe Bryant’s Final Game

The Los Angeles Lakers are arguably the NBA’s most popular franchise. Although the purple and gold have not made a playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season, they remain widely revered and loudly cheered by a large and rabid fan base.

Despite struggling mightily in recent seasons, the Lakers have had many notable high points in the 21st century, including 11 playoff appearances, six trips to the Finals, and four NBA championships (2000-01, 2001-02, 2008-09, and 2009-10). Superstar Kobe Bryant was a major key to all those successes. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the greatest Los Angeles Lakers moment of this century is Bryant’s celebratory final NBA game.

Bryant’s Retirement Announcement

Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from the NBA on Nov. 29, 2015, through a heartfelt poem published in the Players’ Tribune entitled “Dear Basketball.”

“My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” wrote the then 37-year-old Bryant. “I’m ready to let you go. I want you to know now. So we both can savor every moment we have left together.”

That evening, fans at Staples Center attending the Lakers’ home game against the Indiana Pacers received a thank you letter from Bryant enclosed in a black envelope embossed with gold.

Although Bryant’s announcement was not surprising, it still sent ripples through the league. Players, coaches, and pundits all had praise and advice to offer the 18-time NBA All-Star.

Shaquille O’Neal, with whom Bryant won three straight titles in 2000-2002, told the future Hall of Famer to “relax” and enjoy all that he had built.

Former Laker Pau Gasol recalled the “incredible moments” the two had shared, surely including the two championships they won together in 2009 and 2010.

Other former teammates and NBA greats also offered their thanks and appreciation.

Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver recognized the importance of the announcement, issuing a formal NBA statement reacting to the news.

Farewell Tour

The timing of Bryant’s announcement gave basketball fans plenty of opportunities to get a last look at the self-proclaimed “Black Mamba” before he exited the NBA for good. Night after night during the months that followed, Bryant was greeted by standing ovations from sold-out arenas full of adoring fans. Teams also presented tribute videos filled with highlight reels and high praise from peers.

Well-deserved honors for Bryant, but a disservice to the Lakers franchise.

Los Angeles’ coaching and front office staff did a highly questionable job balancing respect for Bryant’s last year in the NBA with the need to rebuild their struggling program. The latter ended up being severely compromised. The Lakers’ 2015-16 season was nothing more than a wash, with the majority of games played having an exhibition feel to them. The team finished dead last in the Western Conference, with a record of 17-65, the worst in franchise history. The Lakers’ young talent, particularly D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, suffered most. They were denied meaningful game minutes and development opportunities.

Bryant finished the 2015-16 season as the Lakers’ top scorer, averaging 17.6 points [per game. He averaged the same number of minutes per game as Russell and Randle (28.2), despite being nearly twice their age and battling numerous injuries.

Final Game

Bryant played the last game of his career on April 13, 2016, at home against the Utah Jazz. Hours before the game, thousands of fans gathered outside Staples Center, most without tickets, to join in the celebration.

Everywhere you looked, it was all about Kobe.

Inside the arena, a sold-out crowd peppered with celebrities and media showered Bryant with love and appreciation. He was introduced by Lakers great Magic Johnson, now the franchise’s president of basketball operations, as the “greatest to wear the purple and gold.” A video tribute featuring a number of NBA legends followed.

The electricity of the night only intensified after tip-off. Bryant put on a goosebump-inducing performance in the highly anticipated game, leading the Lakers to a 101-96 comeback win. He scored 60 points on 22-for-50 shooting, converting on six three-pointers and 10 points from the line. It was the sixth 60-point game of Bryant’s career and the most points scored by an NBA player in his final regular season game.

Bryant’s fourth-quarter performance was particularly noteworthy; he outscored the Jazz by himself, 23-21. Lakers coach Byron Scott subbed Bryant out with 4.1 seconds left in the game, to thunderous applause and chants of “KOBE! KOBE! KOBE!” It was a magical night, overflowing with excitement and raw emotion.

Bryant’s Legacy

Bryant’s retirement marked the end of an era, not only for the Lakers, but also for the NBA. He is considered by many to be one of the top five players to ever play the game.

Bryant retired as the first player in NBA history to play at least 20 seasons with a single franchise. He led the Lakers to five NBA championships (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010) and was named Finals MVP on two of those occasions (2009, 2010). He was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2008, earned First-Team All-NBA honors 11 times, and was a member of the All-Defensive First Team nine times.

Bryant is the Lakers’ all-time leader in numerous categories, including regular-season games played (1,346), points (33,643), three-pointers made (1,827), steals (1,944), and free throws made (8,378). He also holds franchise playoff records for games played (220), points (5,640), three-pointers made (292), and free throws made (1,320).

Jersey Retirement

The Lakers are planning to retire both of Bryant’s jersey numbers, No. 8 and No. 24, on December 18, 2017, prior to a game against the Golden State Warriors in a special ceremony at the Staples Center.

Bryant sported No. 8 for 10 years, from his rookie year through 2005-06, before switching to No. 24 for the remainder of his career. He will be the first player to have two uniform numbers retired by the same team, and the 10th player in Lakers history to have his number retired. The others are Wilt Chamberlain (No. 13), Elgin Baylor (No. 22), Gail Goodrich (No. 25), Magic Johnson (No. 32), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (No. 33), Shaquille O’Neal (No. 34), James Worthy (No. 42), Jerry West (No. 44), and Jamaal Wilkes (No. 52).

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