We can all see the finish line. It grows closer by the second, presenting itself as the end of an organizational epoch, the end of a relationship. The finish line’s visibility isn’t new, but only now is there a discernible level of tangibility, only now does it feel real. While it is tough to sway attention from this particular verisimilitude, the end of Kobe Bryant’s career shouldn’t be the full focus of his 20th season.
While it’s easy to tumble down the rabbit hole of what Bryant’s retirement means for this season, there are still at least 82 Lakers basketball games between now and when that ostensibly becomes a real thing. And within each of the remaining games left on Kobe’s ticket, there will be hundreds upon thousands of individual moments – some big, some small – for us to hang our hats on and discuss. It’s those singular moments that have captivated us for the last 19 years, and it’s those individual moments that will make this season memorable.
This iteration of the Lakers is fascinating on many levels. There hasn’t been an organizational influx of youth since the beginning of Bryant’s career, and that influx is infused with a collection of veterans who have something to prove – and Bryant is among those who is set on playing above preseason expectations. The last thousand days are – literally – marred because of injury, but between surgeries and rehabilitation, we’ve seen flashes of what makes him great, flashes that bespoke the acumen of his brilliance.
If healthy, this year should provide a stage for more performances of grandeur. Among many things, Bryant’s offensive struggles revolved largely around his legs performing at less than 100 percent. And while every injury is unfortunate, Bryant leaving last season with a shoulder injury allowed him to spend the last nine months improving the strength of his biggest weakness. If the theory holds, we should see a rise in efficiency and improved shooting metrics.
More importantly, however, we should see something new. Bryant has held our interest hostage for two decades due in large to his ability to reinvent himself, add something to his character. Each night in the arena is a new opportunity induce awe. On the hardwood, no space is off-limits; the court is comprised of nothing but locations he has been, or locations he could go next. He is a bricolage of every individual moment of his basketball career, and it’s the potential for those moments that should hold our interest over assigning meaning to when the potential for those moments finally dissipates.
If nothing else, his game is dialogic; an ongoing conversation with himself about what he should do next — and each side of that conversation always wants the last word. It’s an improvised dissonance, a tension that’s made Bryant wholly unique. A 19-year chasm exists between the player Bryant was, and the player he is today, and on either end of it are disparate philosophical approaches to the game. Age is the biggest culprit in these changes, but his dialogic approach remains the same. If it’s not a new addition to his game, it’s refinement of something old. The aesthetic of 19-years of muscle memory is just as enthralling, and sometimes, more impressive than the newness of what we’ve never seen.
A few weeks ago, Alec Baldwin had Penn Jillette on his podcast, and he talked about watching Richard Teller perform a trick he’s been doing for 40 years during a rehearsal. There’s something about greatness through refinement that we often take for granted. As Penn watched, he came to a realization about his partner:
“I saw him do this when he was, what, 25. I’m watching the trick, and I go, ‘god damn, he’s better.’ We have this thing in our culture, that if the Rolling Stones are doing satisfaction, we think they should have outgrown that. We have this temporary thing in our culture that forgets the fact that, God damn, people can be good at s—. People can get really good at stuff. “
And this is essentially where we are with Bryant. The man is still really good at what he does, even if there are some physical limitations on how often we’re able to see him do his job. This year should be a season-long celebration of his natural talent and the skill sets he’s perfected, but didn’t come so naturally. This season is an opportunity for one last look, but that last look should stay in the moment. Bryant’s retirement is imminent; there’s no hiding that. But the finesse of a baseline turn-around jump shot is also imminent. So is his propensity for cooking young wings in the post, using his craftiness to get free throws out of impossible situations, the sly passes that will go unnoticed and the game winner that will be noticed by everyone.
Use these last 82 games to appreciate the now, and worry about the future in the spring. Stein’s Law will dictate Bryant’s retirement, but he’s still playing today, and this might be the last time we can say that.