From four air balls to 60 points, Kobe Bryant had a long and drama-filled history with the Utah Jazz

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kobe Bryant drives on Greg Ostertag and Andre Kirilenko. Utah Jazz vs. Los Angeles Lakers. 12.04.2002, 7:28:24 PM

As one of the NBA’s seminal players over a two-decade span, Kobe Bryant, of course, had myriad memorable moments against every franchise in the league.

Some of his most notable, though, came against the Utah Jazz.

His rise to become one of the league’s all-time leading scorers was made all the more incredible when juxtaposed against those air-balled 3-pointers he launched vs. Utah as a teenage rookie forced into action in the 1997 Western Conference semifinals.

And, of course, the ultimate bookend to his spectacular career — an unforgettable 60-point farewell to the basketball universe — also took place against the Jazz back on April 13, 2016.

TMZ first reported the news of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash Sunday, just a short time after Jazz players had left the Zions Bank Basketball Campus following a morning practice.

Myriad Jazz players took to social media shortly afterward to react to the news, going from initial hopes that the reports were incorrect to later expressing sympathy for his family as well as sharing their memories of him as a player and what he meant to them both individually as well as to the game of basketball itself.

“‘I don’t wanna be the next MJ… I wanna be the only Kobe Bryant,’” Donovan Mitchell recalled him saying. “That you were … REST IN PARADISE MAMBA”

Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, initially posted “Can’t be real” on Twitter before growing philosophical once the horrible news had been confirmed that both Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among the nine killed.

“Enjoy every single day people, we are always too worried about things that are actually not that important,” Gobert wrote. “Life is precious and you never [know] when it’s gonna end.”

Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson did an interview with a group of premium ticket-holders after Saturday’s victory over the Mavericks. He was asked who was the hardest player in the NBA he’s had to guard. He said Kobe Bryant.

Dennis Lindsey, the Jazz’s executive vice president of basketball operations, declined to comment “out of respect for Kobe’s family and the Lakers.”

Later in the evening, the Miller family and the Jazz organization issued an official statement on Bryant’s passing: “We are shocked and saddened to learn about today’s tragedy involving Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. From the time he entered the league, Kobe was a generational talent and one of the most competitive players in the game. Many athletes in the NBA today grew up emulating Kobe. The impact he has made on our sport will not be forgotten. We respect his dedication to the game and unmatched work ethic. Our thoughts and prayers are with Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, their family and those close to them.”

Bryant’s career made an impact on those who call the games and cover the teams, as well.

“There was a buzz every time Kobe entered an arena,” Jazz radio play-by-play voice David Locke wrote. “He brought the same buzz to his life off the floor. The sadness is the amazing impact that buzz was going to make off the court. Honored to have felt that buzz from the air balls as a rookie to his closing night brilliance.”

That final game — a 101-96 Lakers victory at the Staples Center — officially eliminated the Jazz from playoff contention that season. And while the Jazz that night were primarily focused on that bigger picture, they still couldn’t help but marvel at Bryant’s one final display of scoring prowess and histrionics, even if they came at their expense.

The Lakers were determined to send him out in noteworthy fashion, and he was not about to argue.

Bryant would go on to play 42 minutes and 9 seconds, launching an eye-popping 50 field goal attempts in that time (making 22). And while he was a pedestrian 6 of 21 from the 3-point line, he also went 10 of 12 from the stripe, and contributed four rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block in addition to his 60 points.

“I’m in still in shock,” Jazz wing Rodney Hood told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time. “Obviously, you don’t want it to be against you, but that’s a hell of a way to go out.”

That such a finale could occur seemed improbable, given the way Bryant performed in perhaps his other most notable game against the Jazz.

Back on May 12, 1997, Utah held a 3-1 lead over L.A. in the Western Conference semifinals and looked to close out the Lakers in the building then known as the Delta Center.

Despite Bryant averaging just 7.6 points in 15 minutes a game over his rookie season, then-Lakers coach Del Harris turned to Bryant to attempt the game-winning shot at the end of regulation. His fadeaway from the elbow missed everything to the delight of Jazz fans.

His performance in overtime was similarly off-target, as he shot just 1 of 5 in the extra session — including three more air balls.

“I’ll just work hard this summer and keep this game in mind,” Bryant told reporters after that game. “Like my father always told me, ‘To win some, you’ve got to lose some.’”

Five NBA championships, 18 All-Star appearances and one Most Valuable Player award later, it was safe to say he overcame those early struggles.

Ahead of his penultimate visit to Salt Lake City, Bryant told reporters in January 2016 that game against the Jazz helped to shape the career that was to come.

“It was an early turning point for me, being able to deal with adversity, being able to deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt and things of that sort,” Bryant told reporters. “Eighteen years old, it was gut-check time. I look back at it now with fond memories of it, but back then it was misery.”

Now, the misery belongs to those who mourn his loss.

Reporter Andy Larsen contributed to this story.


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Tipoff • Monday, 7:00 p.m.

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 32-13; Rockets 28-16

Last meeting • Rockets, 100-93 (April 24)

About the Jazz • Emmanuel Mudiay missed Saturday’s game against the Mavericks due to ankle soreness... The Jazz have the league’s best offense over the last 25 games with a 117 offensive rating... Rudy Gobert has scored 20 points or more in five of his last six games

About the Rockets • James Harden is doubtful to play against the Jazz on Monday due to a thigh contusion, the Houston Chronicle reports... Russell Westbrook is also unlikely to play, as he hasn’t played in back to back games yet this season... Nene and Gerald Green are away from the team due to long-term injuries... Rockets lost four straight last week before beating Denver and Minnesota