While the last game of Kobe’s career is Wednesday, April 13, 2016, a concept I have discussed with more than a handful of fans over the past few years is that Kobe’s career really ended on that fateful night in April 2013 when he ruptured his achilles tendon.
Sure, these last three seasons — two of which ended with injuries to his knee and his shoulder — actually happened, but that wasn’t really Kobe. Kobe ran roughshod over the league. Kobe healed like Wolverine and not only played in games with injuries he shouldn’t have, but played well. Kobe was the guy who would play any amount of minutes it took to try and keep his team competitive and then go that extra mile to then win the game.
What we’ve seen in these recent seasons has been a guy who looks like that player and sometimes even plays like him. But, for the most part, we’ve seen a guy who has failed more often than he has succeeded and, to the shock of most who’ve watched him compete for most of his career, seemed at peace with it.
It all started, of course, with the play where he pushed off his left leg to drive by the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes and, instead of exploding to the rim as he had so many times in the previous months of pushing towards a playoff berth, he fell to the floor like a sprinter who lost his footing out of the starting blocks. He clutched at his heel with his thumb and index finger feeling for a tendon which was no longer intact. He endured the pain (and blocked out any frustration of what he’d known occurred) to shoot — and make — a pair of crucial free throws, then limped off the court under his own power.
That walk off the court was symbolic.
Kobe is gone. He’s been gone. The Lakers paying him the most money in the league hasn’t brought him back. Neither has the roaring crowds, the MVP chants at the FT line, or the league leading All-Star votes. We get glimpses of what he was, but it is not sustained. It cannot be any longer. The mind tries, but the body relents. Father time is undefeated.
Three years ago, however, Kobe was out-dueling the grim reaper. He’d parry off a swipe of the scythe then hit a jumper for good measure. He’d defy his age and the wear on his legs. He would beat back the burden of expectations, to change the narrative of what was going to be an all-time disappointing season. Remembering the feelings of watching it at the time, he did not seem human. No one was supposed to be doing what he was.
It turned out, one really could. Not even Kobe.
In a piece for ESPN, Baxter Holmes went back to that final month of the 2013 season, talked to some of key participants, and gave us a fantastic piece of reporting and storytelling. The entire thing is worth your time. I would, honestly, block quote about two-thirds of the piece, it’s that good.
The conflict and tension of the push for the playoffs, the complete stubborness of Kobe regarding his minutes, the Mike D’Antoni quotes about being unable to get through to him about playing less, the players noting just how worn down Kobe was…it’s all there and placed against the backdrop of Kobe playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Consider that in the final 10 games Kobe played — including the game where he ruptured his achilles — Kobe averaged 43.5 minutes, 29.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. On top of that he drew 85 fouls over that stretch. Over his last 5, those numbers are 44.8 minutes, 32.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 9.4 fouls drawn a night. Think of the physical pounding he was taking in games where the push for the playoffs made the stakes incredibly high.
As the title of the Holmes piece states, those really were the last true days of Kobe Bryant. And even though it is three years later, we will get to say our goodbyes tomorrow.