LOS ANGELES -- As Kobe Bryant drove to the basket early in the third quarter on Thursday night against the Houston Rockets, the 37-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star said he thought about the Casey Jr. train from the 1941 Disney movie, "Dumbo."
"I think I can, I think I can," Bryant said he told himself, quoting the famed line from the circus train as it labored up a hill.
Driving right as he sliced through the lane and the Rockets' defense, Bryant dribbled once, then again. Then said he told himself, "My legs feel pretty good."
He bent his knees, preparing to launch, and Bryant, who finished with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds, said he told himself again, "My legs feel pretty good." He would later say they also "felt lively, felt springy."
"Then I jumped," Bryant said after a 107-87 loss to the Rockets at Staples Center. "And I was like, 'Oh, I'm still going up. And then I said, 'I might as well give it a try.'"
While Bryant soared through the air, with only Rockets forward Clint Capela standing between him and the rim, Bryant said he thought for a moment about his right shoulder, the one that he injured on a dunk in late January 2015 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
That dunk tore the rotator cuff in Bryant's shoulder, ending his season after 35 games, and he said he hasn't dunked since, not even in practice, where Lakers coach Byron Scott said Bryant always lays it in instead.
"I've tried to tease him to get him a dunk or something," said Lakers forward Julius Randle. "He's like, ‘No, I'm not doing it.'"
Indeed, as Bryant said he tells his teammates in practice, "No, not going to happen. There's no way."
As he neared the rim, Bryant could have been more worried about his shoulder and perhaps injuring it again.
"But I said, 'Dude, how many times am I going to jump and my legs actually feel fine?'" Bryant said he asked himself. "So I might as well just give it a shot."
Capela didn't think Bryant had it in him.
"I was expecting a layup, so I didn't jump," Capela said.
Yet with 9:25 left in the third, Bryant jammed the ball home with his right hand, giving him his first dunk of his 20th and final season -- and his first since that late January night in New Orleans.
"No idea where it came from, but it was there," Bryant said with a smile. "Can't really explain it."
The Staples Center crowd went wild, rising up and chanting, "Ko-be!"
Bryant grinned, stuck out his tongue and shot a look to actor Denzel Washington, who sat courtside.
On the Rockets' bench, Dwight Howard, Bryant's ex-Lakers teammate, laughed and grinned from ear to ear.
"Throwback Thursday," Howard said afterward. "I already know what the headlines are going to say. They're going to have a picture of me, and a picture of Clint side by side, and they're going to say, 'Kobe turns back the hands of time.'
"I didn't think he had enough legs to do it. But, you know, it's pretty cool. Good to see the old guy's still got it a little bit."
Bryant dunked 51 times during the 2012-13 season, but near the very end of that campaign, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. He has dunked just nine times in 64 games since then, the Associated Press reported.
Naturally, the reaction Bryant said the Rockets' bench gave him was a collective, "What the hell?"
"They said, ‘You've got two more years [left in you], at least,'" Bryant added.
His response: "Nah, I'm good."
"I didn't think he had enough legs to do it. But, you know, it's pretty cool. Good to see the old guy's still got it a little bit."Dwight Howard on Kobe Bryant's dunk
Meanwhile, the Lakers' sideline exploded with excitement.
"It was kind of like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?'" Scott said.
"That was crazy," he said. "That was vintage Mamba right there. That was nuts. It caught me by surprise. I haven't seen him dunk all year."
When Bryant punched the ball through the hoop, many Lakers reserves bounded out of their seats, especially Lakers rookie guard D'Angelo Russell.
"I like took off and ran across the baseline, tried to get back before the ref saw me and, uh, I caught Denzel's attention and the ref caught me and I don't know what we did," Russell said.
His excessive celebrating earned the rookie a technical foul -- "the best tech that D'Angelo will ever get," Bryant later said.
At first, Russell thought, "How much is that? How much am I going to be fined?"
Then he ran up to Bryant.
"Hey man, you've got to pay my tech on that one," Russell told him.
Bryant said he replied, "Meh, you ran the baseline on your own free will."
Russell was still in awe after the game.
"I told him that the next time he does something exciting, I'm just going to do this," Russell said, holding up two fingers. "You got two years left in you if you do something like that."
Capela didn't seem upset.
"He told me that he surprised himself too," Capela said. "We were both surprised."
Previously, Bryant had challenged Lakers rookie forward Larry Nance Jr. to dunk on Howard. Nance didn't pull off that feat on Thursday, but Bryant apparently still inspired him.
"He came up to me and said, 'Yo, that's what I've got to do, huh?'" Bryant said.
"I said, 'Yeah, if an old man can do it, you should be able to attack the rim just as hard.'"
Not long after Bryant's dunk, Capela was fouled on a shot. Bryant lined up for free throws and stared across the court to his smiling wife and two elated daughters, the youngest of whom, 10-year-old Gianna, was especially excited.
"We were shooting not too long ago and she was shooting one-dribble pullups," Bryant recalled. "I asked her where does she get that from?
"She said, 'From watching you.'"
"I didn't know she was paying attention that much," Bryant continued. "I watch her play and she has the same mannerisms. She'll sit there and bite her jersey and all this other stuff.
"That's a beautiful thing."
Arash Markazi contributed to this report.