Kobe Bryant: 'When I leave, it's because I choose to'

Kobe Bryant: 'When I leave, it's because I choose to'

LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant watched on television as Derek Jeter walked off the field at Yankee Stadium for the last time last week. The Los Angeles Lakers guard hopes to eventually walk away just like Jeter did. But he also hopes to delay that day by a couple years.

"The biggest key for anybody in retirement is you always want to retire by choice," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "Hopefully, I will be fortunate enough to have that option. You don't want to see another catastrophic injury or something like that. When you walk away, you want to feel like you walked away on your terms."

Bryant, 36, will be entering the 19th season of his career after playing in just six games last season because of injury. He missed 19 games while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery and another 57 with a fractured left knee that ended his season. Bryant's last appearance in an NBA game was Dec. 17 against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Bryant sees no reason why he won't play in Monday's preseason opener against the Denver Nuggets in San Diego. More than anything, he's motivated prove to himself he can still be an elite player.

"It's a pretty tough injury," Bryant said. "I'm not going to lie. There are a lot of things that go through your mind when something like that happens. But I just went on my grind, just kind of chipped away at it day by day. I feel pretty good as a result."

Kobe Bryant wants to prove he's still one of the NBA's top players. (USA Today)
Kobe Bryant wants to prove he's still one of the NBA's top players. (USA Today)

The Lakers got a preview of what Bryant can do when he dominated five-on-five scrimmages at their practice facility on Sept. 22. Based on what Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen saw, he doesn't see Bryant retiring any time soon because he looked like "the old Kobe."

"I think Kobe can play two to four more years," said Madsen, a former teammate of Bryant's. "I saw him play this summer. He looked great. Kobe looked strong. He had a couple game-winners [in the scrimmages]."

Bryant will make $23.5 million this season and $25 million next season, the final year of his contract. Can he play beyond those two seasons and perhaps be on the floor at 40?

"Whether I do or not, we'll have to see that two years from now," Bryant said. "I don't know, but I could [play longer]. Physically, I don't see an end to the tunnel."

Michael Jordan averaged 22.9 and 20 points, respectively, in the final two seasons of his NBA career with the Washington Wizards. He also struggled some with injuries and a loss in athleticism at the end of his career before he retired at age 40. Even so, Bryant was impressed with the way Jordan departed.

"He still left on his terms because he wanted to leave," Bryant said. "If he wanted to continue to play the game, he'd continue to play the game even if it's not at the level that we are all accustomed to. You want to play, you play. You don't want to play, you walk away. But at least it's not because of a devastating injury.

"For me, it's the same thing. When I leave, it's because I choose to."

Lakers coach Byron Scott said he plans to give his aging backcourt of Bryant and Steve Nash rest whenever needed at practice this season to preserve their bodies for the long run. Scott is optimistic that Bryant will have a healthy season and regain his spot as one of the NBA's top scorers.

"I expect him to play 82 games and play well," Scott said. "…He is a guy that is going to still average 23, 24 points per game. Our biggest thing is making sure he stays healthy and keeping his minutes to a minimum where he can play 82 games.

"I've had a chance to sit and talk to Kobe. I had a chance to see him work out. I had a chance to see him play five-on-five. He's far from retired."

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