Consider the torch passed.
By all appearances, Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry took center stage Wednesday night, a worthy exclamation point to wrap the NBA's regular season.
The Black Mamba played the final game of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, scoring 60 points on 50 shots against the Utah Jazz, as the basketball and pop culture elite cheered for the pride of Lower Merion High School. Up the coast, Curry helped lead the Golden State Warriors to a record 73 single-season wins with a victory against the Memphis Grizzlies, all while locking up his own record for 402 three-point buckets.
— GoldenStateWarriors (@warriors) April 14, 2016
So yes, these were fitting celebrations. But Wednesday night marked something greater: a farewell to the NBA's past, and an embrace of the NBA's future. Two stars, playing at the same time, each representing what the NBA has been for the last decade and what the league will be and has already become.
Rarely is history so neat.
Bryant’s ascent to stardom came as Michael Jordan was finishing his career, which gave Bryant the chance to take the torch as the face of the league. The Lakers star was the epitome of the 2000s-style NBA: entering the draft straight from high school, getting his own sneaker line, posterizing opponents with ferocious dunks.
Bryant was a pop-culture icon from the second he got into the league. Five championships and 18 All-Star appearances later, he's still busting his ass on the Staples Center hardwood, notching 60 points one last time. He is one of the sport's true worldwide stars, a global envoy during the league's era of globalization.
First let me say congrats to Kobe on an unbelievable career. 20 years! You set he bar on the court for our ... pic.twitter.com/NLAtvmeo4s
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) April 14, 2016
Curry’s route to superstardom has been vastly different, but his impact could be just as big as Bryant’s—maybe even larger, once his career is done. Despite the legacy of his father, Dell, the slight point guard entered the NBA as an unheralded player from a small school—Davidson—and didn't make the playoffs for the first four years of his career.
Watching him Wednesday, though, it's beyond argument that the defending MVP is changing the game itself with his 3-point shooting, electric play style, and team-centric mindset—personifying the new school of basketball. With his lights-out shooting ability and nearly superhuman handling skills, Curry seems to warp spacetime on the court.
Bryant’s final game will go down as one of the best farewells in history—his 60 points were the most scored by any player in the final game of his career—but Bryant is the past. Curry and his 400 three-pointers are the present. And the future.
The Warriors seem to be playing a different game, but it's only a matter of time before the league catches up. A few years ago, Golden State were out of the playoffs and barely had any fans in the stands. Fast-forward to now: The team is the model franchise of the league and has one of the loudest, jam-packed arenas in all of sports. Curry led the Warriors to 73 wins this season—breaking the record set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls—and now the team enters the playoffs looking to win back-to back championships.
Take his performance against the Grizzlies. The Warriors guard set the single-season record for 3-pointers made this season after hitting eight shots from long range against Memphis, finishing with 46 points. Curry’s previous career high for 3-point shots made was 286 from last season, and no player had ever hit more than 300 in any season in NBA history. He smashed barriers and almost made it look easy.
But Bryant was the main story of the night. Past teammates, sports stars, and celebrities from around the world showed up to the Staples Center—including Shaquille O’Neal, David Beckham, Lamar Odom, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Jack Nicholson, Jeremy Piven, Adam Levine, and Kendrick Lamar—to help send off the Lakers star in style.
Lakers coach Byron Scott gave Bryant the chance to get a standing ovation from the fans and his fellow players, taking him out of the game with four seconds left:
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 14, 2016
Bryant addressed the crowd in Los Angeles after the game with an emotional speech:
Mamba out. https://t.co/xrUDRVceyB
— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 14, 2016
"I can't believe how fast 20 years went by. Man, this is crazy. This is absolutely crazy ... and to be standing at center court with you guys, my teammates behind me, appreciating the journey that we've been on—we've been through our ups, been through our downs. I think the most important part is we all stayed together throughout,” Bryant told the crowd.
For one final night, Bryant was the center of the NBA world. Now it's Curry’s time to take the torch.