When Kobe Bryant tells Yahoo! Sports' Graham Bensinger that it's "probably accurate" that he'll follow through on Bryant's rookie year suggestion that he'll retire at age 35, you at once think that it's probably not accurate. Kobe would have been 18 or possibly even 17 (the age in which he was drafted) when he said this, working in an NBA with Michael Jordan alternating as both the best player in the game and a step away from retirement at the same time, at age 33. Bryant's contract ends in two years just a month before he turns 36, and though you get the feeling he hadn't considered the possibility of following through on the thoughts of his 18-year-old self, you can never dismiss anything with Kobe. He's that calculating, that smart.
What if he pulled it off, though? What if he decided that 18 seasons were enough, and that he was going to walk away? What if he signed on for one more season, in order to play through Steve Nash's final year, and retire just a few months before turning 37? What if he and his Los Angeles Lakers secured another ring, along the way?
You know what? He'd be topping MJ.
We usually don't like to go down this route. We weren't among the strange chorus that thought that Bryant's number change to 24 had anything to do with Jordan's number 23, and though we know that Kobe models himself after Michael in every way, he's really not thinking about that every time he puts the ball on the floor or pen to paper. But if he were to walk away and actually retire for good at age 35, he would be going out in a manner far more preferable to Jordan's. The player who, as you'll recall, ended his career in a meaningless regular-season game while playing on a lottery team.
Bryant, with Nash and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (or, possibly, Dwight Howard) in the fold, would not be playing for a lottery team unless a rash of injuries hit. He would be working for a juggernaut, if only one that appears as much on paper two or three years removed from juggerin' and nautin'. This is, of course, assuming his legs hold up.
Because we wouldn't blame those legs if they decided to put a stop to all this, any minute now.
Including his significant postseason turns, Bryant has played over 51,000 career minutes in the NBA. And though the eventual Hall of Famer is "only" 33 for the next few weeks after coming to the league straight out of high school, replacing a few years spent working 30 games a season at Duke with the pounding of heavy NBA action (Bryant was an All-Star in his second season and a second option on a hopeful championship team in his third) more or less mitigates any relative age comparison with most contemporaries in or out of his playing era.
Were he to sign a massive one-year extension in order to commit to a last waltz of sorts during the 2014-15 season (Nash's final year with Los Angeles), Kobe would be reaching some legendary heights with all these minutes. Put him at 72 games played per season, and 20 per postseason (assuming the Lakers are regular conference finalists), Bryant would be at nearly 10,000 more career minutes if we projected him at 36 minutes per game during the regular season (he played a whopping 38.5 last year) and 37 per contest in the playoffs (Bryant averaged nearly 40 per game last spring).
This leaves him at 61,000 combined minutes, just a few months before turning 36. Jordan topped off at around 49,000 for his career. Only Karl Malone (at around 63,000) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (65,000) come close to that. And Kobe's a guard — he doesn't need to blow by you in order to be successful, but it doesn't hurt when he does.
And for Kobe, it does hurt when he does. The rejuvenation therapy that aided in his recovery before the 2011-12 season helps, but it can only do so much. Which is why age 36 — after the end of 2014-15 and with Nash and possibly Pau Gasol joining him as they limp off into those Santa Ana winds again — might be the perfect topper.
Bryant would also have a chance, unlike Jordan, to stay away for good. He's every bit the competitor as MJ is, and as much as he hasn't learned from MJ's mistakes (like gunning his team out of games, even into his early 30s), one would hope he would learn from Jordan's post-Chicago misstep.
(And the Lakers, though they're deep into the luxury tax, would be starting anew with a cleared roster and payroll — save for either Bynum or Howard — after taking in a few years of that massive new TV deal. The Buss family, somehow, always wins.)
It's all up to Kobe, though, as it has always been. We're not exactly keen to see Kobe Bryant stop playing basketball, but as an alternative we're not exactly keen on watching Kobe Bryant play the sort of basketball that doesn't look like Kobe Bryant-styled basketball. Age 35, or even 36, seems like a good chance to go out with a grin.