We all knew this day was coming. From the minute Kobe started talking about basketball as work rather than the steps along the way to being great, I knew we were closer than he was letting on. As soon as he started to talk about “if my mind changes“, I knew we were closer still. And so, on a Sunday afternoon a few hours before an early evening match up against the Pacers, Kobe made clear what we all were seeing through the previously murky messages.
His body could give no more; this season would be his last.
While the emotions swirled in me, to be honest, I smiled a little.
I am the same age as Kobe Bryant. We graduated high school the same summer. When I went off to college for my first Fall quarter, he went off to training camp to start his rookie campaign with the Lakers. Twenty years is a long time. I have earned a degree and had several jobs in that span. Kobe has had one: Guard/Forward, Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe is one of the greatest players I have ever seen play basketball. I grew up in the era before league pass, before internet streaming, before ESPN was really even a thing people cared about. With that, my memory of how things were can be, well, a bit foggy at times. But I do remember. I remember the showtime Lakers. I remember Bird’s Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons, Dream’s Rockets, Stockton & Malone. I saw the rise and sustained brilliance of Michael Jordan. I have seen the entire careers of Kobe’s contemporaries and the greats who came after.
I am not into rankings. But Kobe’s name is in the discussion with those other guys. Where it falls exactly is a debate those who care about such things can have. He was undeniably great and his exploits came on the team I root for. Seeing (essentially) every minute of his career meant countless more good moments than bad ones, and some moments so great they are difficult to explain to people who have never experienced a singular talent, on your team, playing at a level even higher than the ridiculously elevated stakes.
Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Fans of opposing teams never warm to the guy who throws the daggers. Even some fans of the Lakers always wanted it to be different. They wanted more passing, fewer contested jumpers, a better relationship with Shaq, an easier job for Phil, and countless other gripes that were all rooted in truth. Truth we can all acknowledge because we understand the game. Truths that make up the player he is, was, and will be remembered as.
This is the complexity of rooting for Kobe. He has done things his way. He led through confrontation and played a style that could be jaw dropping in its technical expertise and execution while aesthetically sour all at the same time. He would over-pass when people told him he shot too much and shoot…well, whenever he wanted the rest of the time.
He was a dichotomy of a player. Someone who will always be remembered for one-of-a-kind scoring binges, but whose best, singular plays might have been passes. He will forever be known as the hard-ass teammate who could be insufferable to those who did not walk the line he established, but also the leader who took guys under his wing and mentored them behind the scenes to help them improve their games.
The last few years have been difficult to watch. The current one especially so. From the injuries to the poor play to the hubris, it’s not been a good look for…anyone, really. And maybe it was always going to be this way. He pushed his body as far as it could go and now it’s no longer responding. He spent an entire career playing to the idea he could be better than what others thought he could, so much so it became an ingrained part of his approach to the game. There is no turning that off. He suffers for all of it now — with repaired tendons, sore joints, missing cartilage, and a brain that keeps looking for the tactical solution that cannot be executed. Not anymore, at least.
But this is not how I will remember him. Not this version, in 2015, trying to do more than he’s capable, on a team which needs him to try to be less, playing for a coach who seems to think the player can still do even more than that. No, I will remember the player he was, the one who ran roughshod over the league, imposing his will on the game, and achieving more than anyone thought a preps-to-pros guard taken 13th overall ever could.
This, as much as the rings and all the records, will likely be his lasting legacy. For a generation of players, Kobe was the guy they looked up to. Paul George and Kevin Durant are just two examples, but they are important ones. They serve as a bridge from this current crop of great players to the next and Kobe influenced them as much as anyone.
While we all saw this coming, I did not think I we would be talking about this in late November. I thought it would be some random June afternoon, maybe before the draft, where he finally let everyone know he was done. But there was a moment in the Portland game that made me think it might come soon.
Kobe had caught the ball beyond the arc at the top of the circle. He pump-faked and got his man in the air. He sort of dipped his shoulder, then elevated with the hope of drawing a foul call while still getting the shot off. The whistle never blew and the shot missed terribly. Kobe glanced at the ref, befuddled, then sort of had this look on his face as if to say “this doesn’t work anymore.” It was a cross between frustration and acceptance. The next day, he made his announcement. I am not saying these events are linked, but the two will never fully be separated in my mind.
There are still 60-and-some-odd games left in the season. Kobe will try to play in most of them and hopefully his body allows him to see that final night against the Jazz at Staples Center on April 13th. Hopefully he can have that one last ovation from a crowd who also knows it’s time, but wants to hold on anyway. Twenty years is a long time. Thanks for the memories.