(Reuters) - Moments before starting the final game of his stellar 20-year career in the NBA, Kobe Bryant was described as “the greatest” ever to wear the purple and gold by fellow Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson.
Bryant, an 18-time All-Star guard who went on to engineer a thrilling, come-from-behind 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz on his much anticipated league farewell, was given a lengthy video tribute before Johnson walked out to center court.
”We are here to celebrate greatness,“ Johnson, like Bryant a five-time NBA champion, told the sellout crowd. ”For 20 years, excellence. For 20 years, Kobe Bryant has never cheated the game, he has never cheated us as fans.
“He has played through injury, he has played hurt and we have five championships banners to show for it.”
Huge roars then rang out as the Lakers fans gave Bryant thunderous approval.
”For the last 20 years, this man has been the biggest and greatest celebrity we have had in this town,“ said Johnson. ”He is not only a great and unbelievable sports icon but he’s also the greatest to wear the purple and gold.
“So right now we should put our hands together for the late great (former Lakers owner) Jerry Buss for trading for this man.”
Bryant ended Wednesday’s game with 60 points on 22-of-50 shooting as the Lakers fought back from a 15-point deficit at halftime and was again cheered loudly by the fans before he addressed them all from the center court.
”Man, I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by,“ he said, with a towel draped over his shoulders. ”It’s crazy, absolutely crazy to be standing here on the same court with you guys, with my team mates behind me.
”I appreciate the journey we have been on, there have been a few ups and downs but the most important part is that we all stayed together throughout.
“All I can do here is thank you guys for all the years of support, all the years of inspiration. This has been unbelievable. I can’t believe it has come to an end,” he said, before gold and purple confetti descended from the ceiling.
Asked in his post-game news conference how he felt about Johnson labeling him as the greatest Laker ever, Bryant replied: “I refuse to believe it because Magic is my hero ... and so he is, and always will be, number one for me.”
Pre-game, another video tribute to Bryant was played on the Jumbotron suspended from the rafters at Staples Center, ending with the words ‘Congratulations on 20 years in the Purple and Gold’ emblazoned on the screen.
Individual tributes from former team mates and opponents such as LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony were played before long-time Lakers fan and Hollywood great Jack Nicholson wrapped things up.
“You have been an inspiration to us all and LA loves you,” said Nicholson.
At that point, further chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” rang out from the crowd as Johnson walked across to embrace Bryant and share a few private words.
Bryant then walked out to center court, applauding the fans with his hands raised high, then lifted his right arm in tribute before blowing kisses to the crowd.
The 37-year-old Lakers guard has cemented his place among the pantheon of NBA greats with a career that also includes scoring titles, the third-most points in league history and a league most valuable player award in 2008.
Though his beloved Lakers have spluttered this season to an embarrassing record of 17-65, the worst for a franchise that has won 16 NBA championships, his league farewell sparked huge interest at the box office for Wednesday’s game.
Demand for tickets was as high as a pivotal Lakers playoff game, ranging in the secondary markets from $700 to $10,000.
According to Stubhub, owned by eBay and the largest online ticket resale site in the United States, the most expensive ticket sold for Wednesday’s game went for $27,500.
Editing by Frank Pingue