Kobe Bryant’s iconic and illustrious twenty-year career comes to a close tonight.
Ever since he penned his “Dear Basketball” retirement letter on Nov. 29, 2015, the NBA has been sending off the greatest player of his generation in grand fashion. Tonight, the Kleenex comes out as we officially say goodbye.
The legion of teams, opponents and fans he tormented since entering the league in 1996 as a wire-thin high school prodigy from Pennsylvania have showered him with endless adulation and persistent standing ovations in recent months. It’s a strange sight from the parade of people who found him to be a polarizing pariah and heroic sociopath during his prime.
The final farewells have been proper for the 18-time All Star, five-time NBA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the league’s third all-time scoring leader.
Basketball fans will fall short of superlatives trying to illustrate the Black Mamba’s legacy-defining career and his global impact on basketball. One thing is for certain, though. No matter where you have him on your personal “all-time” list, he’ll forever be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore.
“You never disappointed the city, Laker fans, and basketball fans worldwide,” Magic Johnson wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “All you cared about was winning games and championships and that’s why so many people love you.”
Bryant retires having earned $680 million for his efforts on the hardwood—the most in NBA history, per Forbes. From that figure, $350 million came from endorsements from Nike, Adidas, McDonald’s, Sprite, Apple, Smart Car and Nutella, among countless others. The earnings would be even more astronomical, but sexual assault allegations cast shadows on his image in 2003, and it took sponsors some time to warm up to him again.
Companies still eagerly lined up though, much like fans will tonight at Staples Center—up to $25,000 a pop if you want to be within handshake distance of Jack Nicholson.
The front page of today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times:
Nike has declared April 13 as “Mamba Day,” and of course, there is a special pair of sneakers to celebrate the occasion as well.
Their touching ad titled “The Conductor” features Kobe hitting one last buzzer beater on the road, and orchestrating the banter from his foes before he walks off the floor.
Nike’s “Don’t Love me. Hate me.” remarkably hits the spot as an homage to Kobe’s tenacity and unending desire to be great—and hated. The stirring tribute was made especially for the Chinese market, where Kobe is a rock star. He recently signed a deal with Alibaba, China’s biggest online marketplace, to create and sell a series of Kobe-branded products.
Nike also rolled out their A-list team of athletes featuring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, among others, to chronicle what Kobe’s fierce and unrelenting attitude means to them.
Sometimes lost in the love and fanfare is that Kobe is having a historically bad season while playing on the worst Lakers team of all time. He’s often seen late in games wrapped in ice and towels like a mummy. Such is the case for a 37-year-old who’s played 50,000 taxing minutes of professional basketball. Apple used actor Michael B. Jordan to poke fun at Kobe’s decline.
In a laundry list of career highlights and achievements, perhaps the most remarkable for Kobe was scoring 81 points in one game. It’s a feat even difficult to duplicate in video games. NBA 2K celebrated the fact that anyone can be Kobe with a special “Legend Edition” of NBA 2K17, set to be released this September. Here’s the smorgasbord of goodies included in the $79.99 preorder:
Physical Items: Limited-edition Kobe poster; two Kobe Panini playing cards; Black Mamba game controller skin.
Digital Content: 30,000 Virtual Currency; MyTEAM Bundle + (includes three packs with guaranteed Kobe limited-use card); Nike Kobe 11 retirement shoes; Kobe No. 8 Mitchell & Ness jersey; Kobe hoodie, and more.
For 2K, it’s a fantastic marketing move to capture Kobe-crazy fans.
2K’s “through the years” collage also showcases an impressive and nostalgic evolution of the Mamba’s video game likeness (below). If you’re old enough to remember Bryant’s formative years in the league, then you’ll also recall the Nintendo 64 series Kobe Bryant in NBA Courtside and jacking up shots just like the real-life version. In fact, Kobe is a veteran of the video game industry, as evidenced by his cameos for Guitar Hero and Call of Duty.
As the season came to a close, American Express hosted a “Teamed Up” event with Kobe to provide a super-exclusive event for card members, giving them special access to Bryant. Kobe was joined by former teammates Rick Fox and Robert Horry for a night of storytelling and celebration. This should be a reminder as good as any for Lakers fans not to ever leave home without an AmEx card. And if you do forget, use the L.A. Metro Blue Line Pico station, otherwise known as the Kobe station, to go back and pick it up.
As Kobe’s retirement loomed, his merchandise sales surged, too. According to CBS, Kobe-related merchandise sales were up more than 100 percent this year and in the last 30 days, sales increased by 500 percent—NBA.com chronicled all 36 jerseys he’s ever worn. If you have an extra $38,000 laying around, AEG and the Lakers team store unveiled the “24 Collection” featuring a New Era, 18-karat gold hat that would even make Robin Leach blush—2 Chainz was impressed by the selection of lavish garb, too. The collection also includes a limited-edition boxed jersey, priced at $824.80.
If you’re looking for something more modest, Stance has released special-edition socks that will be worn by the entire Lakers team tonight, just as Kobe did during L.A.’s upset victory over the Golden State Warriors earlier this season.
If the socks prove to have the winning mojo again on Wednesday, it will be the best sendoff Kobe could ever ask for.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan.