Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant delivered a Hollywood ending as the curtain came down on his glittering 20-year NBA career in a fairytale 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 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 finale. "Man, I can't believe how fast 20 years went by, this is crazy," Bryant said after the victory in an address to the crowd.
"To be standing on center court with you guys, my team-mates behind me, appreciating all this, the journey we've been on. "I grew up a die-hard Laker fan -- I mean a die-hard Laker fan -- so to be drafted and traded here and spend 20 years here, you can't write something better than this.
"No words can describe how I feel about you guys, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 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. Tickets were the most expensive in basketball history, according to online exchange StubHub.com, which sold one pair of tickets for a staggering USD 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." 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." Bryant's tribute video was a virtual who's who of the NBA, with Shaquille O'Neal, Lamar Odom, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and several other coaches and players featured.
"It was fun playing with you, it was fun playing against you," O'Neal said. "Best Laker ever."
Odom, battling back to health after a drug overdose last year, added: "I'm proud to say I was right with you, Kobe Bean." 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."