Last night in Los Angeles, the Lakers’ 107-103 loss to the Indiana Pacers was the secondary story behind the contents of a black envelope that was handed to every fan that entered the Staples Center.
Simultaneously, his Dear John letter to the game of basketball went up on the Player’s Tribune website, nearly crashing the interwebs in the process.
And so, the inevitable has come to fruition. It’s that moment that we all knew was soon coming.
Kobe Bryant is taking his final NBA lap.
Whether you’ve loved or despised him, now is not the time to mockingly joke that his skills retired three years ago, to debate whether he was better than LeBron, whether playing alongside Shaq overinflated his legend or where he stands in the pantheon of all-time Laker greats.
As he says in his poem, Dear Basketball, it’s time to simply “…savor every moment we have left together.”
The clock on his remarkable career is now finite, and despite the woeful state of the 2-14 Lakers and Kobe’s own diminished skills, the remainder of this season will be filled with a sad tinge of exhilaration and nostalgia.
“I’ve known for a while,” Bryant said at last night’s postgame press conference, regarding his decision to retire after this, his 20th NBA season. “A decision like this, you can’t make that decision based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision, and finally I’ve decided to accept that I can’t actually do this anymore, and I’m OK with that. It takes a weight off my shoulders and everybody else’s.”
This is not a story simply about Los Angeles, about the NBA, about basketball. Kobe Bryant had long-ago exceeded those parameters. His worldwide celebrity, his fascinating grip on international cultures from China to Italy, from Brazil to Brooklyn is, in and of itself, a fantastic testament to what he’s achieved through the game, while transcending it in a way that very few have.
His career is defined by much more than his one MVP trophy and five championships. To simply sum up the beauty and majesty of what he's accomplished, his otherworldly talents, how he made our lives better with his physical gifts and his insatiable appetite for greatness on a nightly basis, we have to go back to 1996.
The Chicago Bulls were just coming off of the most dominating season in NBA history. They went 72-10 in the regular season en route to the title as the incomparable Michael Jordan became the only player to ever be named the Finals MVP at least four times. MJ was also coming off of his league-record 8th scoring title.
It had been a two-year hiatus since the Bulls won the championship, while Jordan was off taking his baseball sabbatical. His return reminded everyone of his brilliance, and there was a mixture of elation and sadness to that 1996 championship, because we were all certain that we’d never see a player of that magnitude, with those similar gifts, ever again.
But in the remarkable, ensuing NBA Draft, as the league celebrated its 50th year, the basketball gods bestowed more gifts for that Golden Anniversary than the Wise Guys paying their respects at Henry and Karen's wedding in Goodfellas. And hidden within that dowry, after Allen Iverson was taken 1st overall, after Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen, was the crown jewel.
That gem’s name was Kobe Bean Bryant, a skinny 6-foot-6 kid from Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburbs, the first guard to go from ashy to classy, from high school directly to the pros.
Most people had never seen him play, except for us junkies of Philadelphia prep and elite high school hoops, who watched with mouths agape as he not only scored more than City of Brotherly Love legends Lionel Simmons and Wilt Chamberlain, but he also passed the ball, rebounded and blocked shots with an acumen that was way beyond his teenage years.
I know that hindsight is 20-20, but I’d like to send a big Fred Sanford shout-out to the GM’s and scouts who decided to pick guys like Vitaly Potapenko, Samaki Walker, Eric Dampier and Todd Fuller ahead of Kobe.
Let’s forget for the moment and not dwell on the fact that his supporting cast now consists of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Young as opposed to those beast teams with Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, or the Shaq and Kobe three-peat squads.
In any breakup, we tend to focus on what went bad at the end, as opposed to appreciating the full beauty of the journey, if it indeed contained some splendor. And the exquisite magnificence of our relationship with Kobe was that, after Jordan, we never thought we’d see or feel anything like that again.
But then Kobe came along, and he proceeded to give us close to 20 more years of that vicarious exhilaration.
We must always keep in mind that despite the rings, the endorsement portfolio and the accolades, Kobe has always been an outsider. In an inverse of the normal NBA narrative, he grew up affluent, spent his youth living in Italy where he spoke Italian and Spanish and had the grades, SAT scores and an inquisitive intelligence that could’ve landed him at Harvard if he’d so chosen.
In an ironic twist, in terms of basketball’s more common Horatio Alger success narrative, where the poor kid in the projects who doesn’t know his father is driven towards athletic greatness, Kobe succeeded against the odds of being born on third base.
You may not recall the folks who scoffed at his decision to bypass college, who called him soft for growing up prosperous in Europe and on Philly’s well heeled Main Line, who disparaged him for having the gall as a teenager to say that Shaq was childish, and that he had dreadful work habits. I certainly do.
Many more people laughed at him for suggesting, not long ago, that he could defeat Father Time, that he could make playoff contenders of squads with Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin as his most talented supporting cast members.
If you giggled at those statements, you never truly had an understanding of who Kobe is and how his mind operates.
It didn’t matter if he was playing with Zan Tabak, Mengke Bateer, Keith Closs and Javaris Crittendon, he thought he could win an NBA Championship.
When you boil it all down, that’s what makes Kobe, ummmmm, Kobe. He had the confidence and swag of Bruce Lee, Jordan’s killer instinct and an insane work ethic that is legendary in its own right.
With all of the advanced metrics, the dunks, the highlights, the championships, the love/hate relationships with a fickle and chemically imbalanced American pop culture, along with the vacillating high and low moments with Shaq and Phil Jackson, the mirage and aura of the Los Angeles dream that surrounds him and a collective societal yearning to live the dream that Kobe has lived, his story really is very simple.
It’s about success born out of hard work, of skills unparalleled that were never taken for granted, about loving and wanting something so much that you’d be willing to leave a piece of yourself behind in order to live it to the fullest, love it until it couldn’t be loved anymore and walking away satisfied at never having to ask, what if?
It’s about joy that was earned, never given. We’ve seen him evolve from a talented sidekick on championship squads to an avaricious assassin who won titles as the undisputed alpha dog, on his own terms, in his own way. He made something so complicated, demanding, intricate and grueling look effortless. That’s the true beauty of his gift to us.
Kobe didn’t care what we thought, he was going to fight with everything inside of him, because the goal was always to win.
And there were very few, if any, who did it better.