Kobe Bryant remembers a time one of his daughters struck out in a softball game and began to cry. He did not want her to think that her tears were a sign of weakness. He wanted her to know that her father has cried about sports, too.
So he showed her a video of the conclusion of the 2008 NBA Finals, which the Lakers lost to the Celtics in six games. There was Bryant, walking off the court in Boston. There was Bryant, crying.
"I said, 'Listen, it's fine,' '' Bryant recalled telling his daughter. "You just have to bounce back.' So that's the kind of impact this building has had on me."
The building was TD Garden. The bounce-back was the Lakers' 2010 NBA Finals win over the Celtics. Over his 20-year career, Bryant firmly entrenched himself in the Celtics/Lakers rivalry with big shots in bigger moments. Each one was met with the understanding that a new one would follow.
But Wednesday brought Bryant's final game in Boston. It brought an end. Still, he did not depart without putting a final and meaningful stamp on his time in this city. With 1 minute, 40 seconds left and his team clinging to a 2-point lead in a loud, tense game, he pulled up at the top of the key and drained a 3-pointer, helping send Los Angeles to an improbable 112-104 victory.
"There you go, man," Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. "We were in the game. If he missed that, anything could happen."
Bryant has, in a sense, built a career on the notion that anything can happen, anything is possible. When he took that shot, he was just telling himself to use his legs so he would have enough lift. There would be time later to think about the memories and the Garden and the rivalry and the Celtics.
"I don't think the fans here really understand how much they drove me," Bryant said. "From the singing of the songs, the shaking of the bus going back to the hotel, that stuff really stuck with me. It drove me to, like, maniacal proportions. So I don't think they really understand how much they meant to my career."
Throughout the night, TD Garden buzzed and shook as if the stakes were much higher than they actually were. The fans here — many of them Lakers supporters — chanted Bryant's name often, most powerfully in the final minutes. He finished with 15 points on 5-of-18 shooting, but his night will be remembered for his final shot.
For the Celtics, this loss was a setback. The Lakers are just 6-27, and Boston had entered this game with a four-game winning streak, playing some of its best basketball of the season. Coach Brad Stevens said he did not think his players were caught up in the moment. Rather, they allowed the Lakers' young guards to gain confidence, and at the other end of the floor, too many possessions spiraled into disarray.
"It's just a mental letdown, from top to bottom, from all of us," Jae Crowder said. "And it hurt us. It hurt us."
Before the game, Bryant received a framed piece of the old Boston Garden parquet floor from the Celtics during a private ceremony. And out on the court, the buzz was palpable. Bryant figured he would be greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos. And he was.
The house lights were dimmed for his introduction — a rarity for a visiting player. Bryant received an incredibly loud and sustained ovation. Fans then began chanting "Kobe! Kobe!" before they were drowned out by the Celtics' regular introductions.
Then the lights came up and the game began, and the first time Bryant received a pass, he was booed. And then it happened again and again.
"It felt great to get booed," Bryant said. "It was like the recognition at the top of the game, and then as soon as I touched the ball they booed. I was like, 'Oh, I'm home.' It felt great."
Kobe Bryant cheered in final game in Boston
Kobe Bryant received a standing ovation from the TD Garden crowd before his final game vs. the Celtics in Boston. (Adam Himmelsbach video)
Bryant's play was unsteady, much as it has been all season. He missed his first eight shots as well as a free throw. It was too sloppy for Boston fans to be angry at him yet also too sloppy to be wowed by him.
The other Lakers, however, did not struggle. Lou Williams and rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell combined to go 7 for 9 from the field in the second quarter, and Los Angeles used a 34-point period to take a 58-56 halftime lead.
The Lakers led, 70-67, with 5:15 left in the third quarter when they unfurled a powerful run. Back-to-back baskets by Nick Young capped a 13-2 surge that gave the visitors a surprising 83-69 lead.
The Lakers led, 93-81, early in the fourth quarter when Boston's Evan Turner scored 6 points over a stretch of just 1 minute and 6 seconds, pulling the Celtics within 93-87. With 3:36 remaining, Turner missed a jumper and Bradley soared in for a follow slam, making it 100-98.
But Bryant then answered with his defining 3-pointer, and he went out on his terms. The fans chanted his name a few more times. Many Celtics met him near midcourt and embraced him, and then Bryant acknowledged the Boston crowd as he left the floor here for the final time.
"[Boston is] right up there with Philadelphia for me in terms of most emotional, because this place has really meant a lot for my career," he said. "I can't stress that enough, which is why I wanted my kids, my family, to be here, to be in this building, and to be able to see this experience."