Over the past five weeks, a great many opinions have been offered on the current form and function of Kobe Bryant, who announced Sunday that he plans to retire after this season. Few have been especially positive. Many have touched in some fashion on the notion of Deserving Better Than This.
The basic idea: watching the version of Kobe suiting up for the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers — one who has finally succumbed to the physical deterioration of playing more total NBA minutes than anybody in history but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Jason Kidd, the accumulated toll of "using" offensive possessions more frequently than anybody but Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson over a two-decade span, and suffering three consecutive season-ending injuries; one who can no longer torch, roast, slow-cook or even really reheat most NBA defenders — is sad. We don't like being sad. We'd rather be happy, like we were when watching Kobe hang 81 on Toronto, or put 65 on Portland, or set a new house record with 61 at the World's Most Famous Arena.
We want Kobe to be like he was then, not like he is now, so we lament what we have and, more than that, what we've lost. Kobe, whom we should remember as a dominant conqueror rather than merely one of the vanquished struggling to shoot 30 percent, Deserves Better Than This. The Laker organization, a long-running incubator of legends waylaid by the passing of its patriarch and some bad breaks, Deserves Better. The game to which Bryant penned his now-famous love poem Deserves Better. We Deserve Better.
I get that sentiment, but ... well, no. "Deserve" has nothing to do with this. Any difficulty we might have stomaching what we're watching is pointless.
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This — the tireless toil and preparation to perform, even without results to match; the unshaking assertion of primacy in the structure of a team he can no longer lead in action; the full Lion In Winter monty — is the exit that Kobe has chosen. It's the one that's his right to choose. It's the one that the Lakers co-signed when they agreed to make him the league's highest-paid player for two more years while he was still working his way back from what's likely the most damaging injury a basketball player can suffer, at age 35, after 17 NBA seasons.
It's the one Kobe continued to choose Sunday by refusing to walk away midstream — even though he acknowledges that his body can no longer comply with his brain's directives, even though he's made peace with the fact that he doesn't "want to do this anymore," even after the poem to the sport and the letter to Laker fans and the rest of it — because he's unflinchingly committed to putting the final period at the end of this story himself. From Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:
“I’m a storyteller,” Bryant told a roomful of reporters after the Lakers’ 107-103 loss to Indiana. “I love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love storytelling.”
Telling stories that inspire and educate, he said, is his future. But on Sunday night it was also the task in front of him.
Near the end of an engaging, funny and honest 25-minute press conference in which Bryant was dazzling, answering questions in three languages, the star was asked what part of his Lakers story meant the most to him.
One of the five championships, right?
No, no, Bryant said. The two Finals the Lakers lost meant more.
“If you just have championships,” he said, “there’s no antagonist, there’s no up and down. It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty at the end of the film.”
Bryant's already made one film, he seems to be in the process of making another, and now he's writing the ending he wants. Not the one we think he deserves or that we might want for him, but his ending.
He earned that right by producing 17 pre-injury seasons of one of the greatest careers the sport's ever seen — five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, one league MVP, 17 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA nods, two Olympic gold medals, the third-most points in American professional basketball history, and more. As fellow Laker great Magic Johnson told our Jeff Eisenberg, "He's going out the way he wants to go out." In a line of work in which so few players ever get the leeway to make this call, why weep for it?
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Jerry West, one of the few people alive who has played the off-guard spot at Bryant's level and the man who made him a Laker by engineering that fateful 1996 draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, says watching this iteration of Bryant "bothers" him and makes him "sad." Yet Kobe can't bring himself to sink into the sorrow.
“It’s the cycle,” he said Sunday, according to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. “There’s no sadness in that. I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders. I see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain. I’m not sad about it. I’m appreciative of what I’ve had.”
Our Adrian Wojnarowski described today's Kobe as "everything that he never wanted — all those younger guys getting over on him now." Even so, Bryant has the choice, and he's choosing to keep going, to keep grinding it out, to keep charging his enemies until either he or they have no life left, as we always knew he would.
"There's so much beauty in the pain of this thing," he said Sunday, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge. "It sounds really weird to say that. But I appreciate the really, really tough times as much as I appreciate the great times. It's important to go through that progression. Because that's when you really learn about yourself."
There is a temptation, as you listen to Bryant talk about finding beauty in his failings in a way he never has before, to respond with a question once posed by a kindred spirit:
... but it also kind of makes sense. As our Eric Freeman wrote Sunday, "Kobe appears to value the narrative of his final season more than his lived experience of it." He is not afraid of what this looks like, what it will look like, and he never has been. It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty at the end of the film.
In about four months, Kobe Bryant will cap an illustrious 20-year NBA career that will eventually result in his enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and multiple Laker tributes, headlined by a retired jersey (or jerseys) and perhaps a statue outside Staples Center. We will revisit our favorite moments, the most awe-inspiring performances, the most amazing quotes, and everything else.
Kobe will move on from the pressure to compete against today's stars, the ghosts of Jordan and his younger self, and the rest of the foes he's battled over the years. We will begin in earnest the process of trapping him in amber and finding his career's proper place in the NBA firmament. The Lakers will begin fashioning their future around D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, whichever lottery pick they pluck if they keep their 2016 draft choice and whichever free agents they can lure to Hollywood. All parties will be free.
But, y'know, we're also free now. We don't have to gnash our teeth and rend our garments. Everything's fine; everything's happening the way it's supposed to. Kobe's never really been playing for a place in Springfield. He's been playing for Valhalla. His last ride begins with a journey home (how's that for poetry?) to take on the winless Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Let's stop wincing, start viewing every missed shot as just another flaming arrow for the pyre, and try to enjoy the light and color of the dancing flames carrying Kobe to whatever lies beyond.
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