The word ‘greatness’ typically signifies a phenomenon that people struggle to comprehend, and is a term that is too often thrown around in sports. On Wednesday, April 13, 2016, however, the National Basketball Association (NBA) witnessed two events that individually qualify as some of the greatest moments in the history of basketball, but ultimately came together to create the greatest night the NBA has ever seen.
Normally, the NBA regular season in April is a somewhat meaningless slog, especially for teams that have clinched a playoff spot or, even worse, for teams that have been embarrassingly eliminated from playoff contention. Such would normally be the case for both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers this season, but the 2015-2016 campaign was by no means a ‘normal’ NBA regular season.
The Golden State Warriors, last year’s defending Larry O’Brien Trophy holders, have somehow exponentially gotten better in pursuit of a repeat championship victory. Just when you thought the Warriors couldn’t get any better, Stephen Curry and his band of ultra-gifted teammates proved they still had a chip on their shoulder to be one of the greatest squads basketball had ever seen – and they were well on their way, winning the first 24 games of the season. After Wednesday’s win at Oracle Arena (one of the loudest arenas in basketball), the Warriors secured their place in history by winning 73 games in a single season, breaking the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls’ record for wins in a season. NBA pundits around the world previously thought this record unbreakable, given how the NBA has changed and the perfect storm of talent, dedication, and luck needed to accomplish such a feat.
As good as Curry and the Warriors were this season (arguably the greatest individual and team seasons in the history of basketball), nothing – absolutely nothing – could stop Kobe Bryant from becoming the NBA’s focal point one final time.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been facing a major shift in the organization’s direction the last few years, especially after learning of Kobe Bryant’s impending retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The general idea among basketball fans was that the Lakers were going to focus on developing young talents like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, while seeking to lure major free agents (i.e. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or even LeBron James) in the coming years. In theory, this strategy would allow the Lakers to reclaim the NBA prominence it has held for much of its existence. However, not everything goes according to plan, and the Lakers were inclined to live out the 2-year, nearly $50 million contract extension they offered Kobe a couple of years ago.
This strategy to comply with Kobe’s ‘retirement tour’ seemed problematic for hardcore basketball fans, considering Kobe had dealt with two major injuries in consecutive seasons, but also because it meant, potentially, hindering the development of the Lakers young talent. The Lakers’ tumultuous season culminated on Wednesday night with Kobe’s final NBA game, which proved to be the most major event of the season. Kobe’s retirement night was so special, in fact, that not even film writers in Hollywood could have written it.
On Wednesday night, the prolific scorer that is Kobe Bryant performed in the most theatrical way possible – by scoring 60 points in his last game ever, and leading the Lakers to an unlikely comeback victory against the Utah Jazz. Granted, Kobe took 50 shot attempts to score his 60 points, but the idea going into this game was always that this was Kobe’s night. Kobe was going to play the most minutes he had played all season (42) and take any shot he felt like he could hit. The exciting part of all this was that he led the Lakers to comeback from a 10+ point deficit with three-pointers, free throws showered with ‘MVP’ chants, and his patented reverse layups. It was as though Kobe wanted to ‘play the hits’ for his fans as he prepared to end his basketball career.
Kobe Bryant managed to make his last night as a professional athlete – a typically sad night to see for older athletes – one of the most entertaining nights his sport has ever seen, and that’s a testament to the competitive fire Kobe displayed for two decades. Kobe may be the closest the modern NBA fan has ever seen to the competitive fire and entertainment of Michael Jordan in his heyday (even their games are similar), further cementing him as one of the NBA’s greatest performers.
The NBA was coincidentally treated to two of the greatest moments in its history on Wednesday, seeing the Warriors break the all-time single season wins record and witnessing Kobe Bryant – one of the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of Nikes (formerly Adidas) – retire on his terms. It’s not often that records are broken in sports or that the greatest players in the history of the game are celebrated. Sports fans were treated to both on the same night, making for the greatest regular season night the NBA has ever seen.