Beginning his 20th NBA season in a couple of months, Kobe Bryant is approaching the finish line. The wind is behind him as this long and grueling marathon that began in 1996 with a lot of skepticism and doubt has taken him to a celebratory place, and a very rich one as well. Two decades after its start, he has a far different lens in which the world appears complicated. Gone from view is that skinny 17 year old Italy/Pennsylvania high school kid who entered the league with a grin, a lot of arrogance, confidence, determination and the mentorship of Jerry West. West, it must be noted, went out on a limb in his chase of Bryant and was proven right all along in understanding that Bryant’s motivation was married to his compulsion. There was no other choice. Bryant had to be great.
As for Kobe Bryant the basketball player, realistically, he can quit now, call it a career and give himself a pat on the back for what his will, determination and focus allowed him to accomplish in tandem with some pretty great teammates along the way, despite his often mecurial, self-absorbed, ghastly behavior. For Byrant, the end in fact justified the means, until it really was the end, then all bets were off. Because no matter how expertly he tries to deflect, endings are sad.
The Kobe Bryant paradox is not original. What he used to be is absent, he can never be it again. But setting that aside for even a moment there is something else at work here. When it comes to quitting anything, particularly something you love, it’s even harder and anyone who says its not has never really loved something. Or else they are lying altogether. It is like an amputation. It takes a while to accept that when the leg is gone, the leg is fucking gone. You still feel it. It is what older athletes and their younger selves conceptually struggle with; they still feel their younger self. And so it is that one Kobe Bryant is holding onto the last ribbons of his career even if the body is tortured. The mind is not, which is the point.
In an interview with Marc Spears of Yahoo, Bryant spoke of retirement as singular. If he’s bored playing then he’ll quit. If he isn’t bored he won’t. It’s not enough to settle the question one way or another because no one knows which Kobe we will see on the court in November. After all he’s played 46,000 minutes and 1200 games. He shot 37% last year but his shoulder was broken. But then he’s going to be 37 years old and he’s been a dominant offensive usage player for so long who knows what is left of his body, what is paper and what is not.
With Spears, he was more than willing to talk about his physical health.
“The body is good. I feel good. My lower body is solid. There is no question marks on what I can do. My body and my legs feel extremely strong and healthy. That’s the big difference.”
It’s hard to imagine any part of Kobe Bryant wanting a goodbye tour and so it makes sense that he doesn’t make any decisons until after this season is finished though it is logical that after 20 NBA seasons this is it. He is leaving the Lakers with young talent, the cupboard isn’t totally bare.
“They have really set themselves up for a promising future going on years. I think they drafted well. The free agents that we picked up are solid. We have a very good mix of young and veteran leadership. The challenge is going to be blending the two and then cutting down the learning curve.”
At this age, there is nothing more for Bryant to learn. He has a way of dragging his legend through multiple resurrections as he takes blows and keeps on going but it is going to stop one day. He will have to. This can be a world soaked in malice, particularly when the body cannot keep up anymore. Then being human is suddenly all to real. But Kobe has always been the same exact thing, injured or not he is a Laker by birth, a Laker by reputation, a Laker by luck, a Laker by work and effort, a Laker by titles, a Laker until the end. The end, there it is, that word. The end. It is coming. It is. Coming.
photo via Wikimedia.org