Kobe Bryant's farewell tour has brought his many fans out to every venue he visits for a series of (sometimes very odd) tributes. Yet the announcement of the end of Kobe's NBA career did not necessarily herald the last hurrah of his time playing high-level basketball. This August's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro offered Bryant another chance to play with and against the best players in the NBA, especially if USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski conspired to add the two-time gold medalist to the roster on the merits of his experience and veteran presence.
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Kobe said way back in August that he only wanted a spot with Team USA if he earned it on the strength of his play. Bryant appears to have a fairly accurate sense of his worth, because he took himself out of consideration for a place on the national team on Saturday night before the Lakers faced the Utah Jazz. From Tim Reynolds for the Associated Press:
''Since my retirement announcement, I'm able to watch these guys in a different light,'' said Bryant, a gold medalist in 2008 and 2012. ''I've come to terms with the fact that they are the future of this game. These are the guys who deserve the spots in Rio. These are the guys who people need to watch and root for. These are the guys to show fans where this game is going in the future.'' [...]
''I've had my moment,'' Bryant said in a pregame news conference. [...]
The NBA's No. 3 all-time scorer, Bryant worried that if he took a spot on the 12-man roster and then could not play because of injury - and he's dealt with major ones in recent years - he could wind up hurting the U.S. chance at gold and take a spot from a younger player who deserved an Olympic shot. [...]
''If they want me to come down and speak to the guys, I will, but that's about it,'' Bryant said. ''As beautiful as it would be to play for the country - I mean, I love our country - when I say my last game, it's going to be my last game.'' [...]
''I think it's pretty sweet to have the final game be in a Lakers uniform,'' Bryant said.
It's very kind of Kobe to sell his decision as an attempt to pass the torch to younger stars and to save Team USA from getting relatively little out of one of its precious few roster spots. However, it feels like Kobe himself would benefit most from his not playing in Rio, because he's already hobbling towards the regular-season finish line with three months left to go. Already dealing with right Achilles tendon soreness (he tore his left one in April 2013) that limited him to just 15 minutes in Saturday's loss to Utah, Bryant figures to need every bit of his energy to turn his final season with the Lakers an effective goodbye. It's difficult to imagine him being in good enough health to contribute to Team USA as anything more than an honorary captain, and he doesn't seem to want that.
Fans may argue that one of the best players in basketball history deserves a happier farewell than the one he's currently experiencing with the conference-worst Lakers. Yet Kobe has seemingly rejected the possibility of a happy ending from the moment he announced his retirement, focusing on "the beauty in the pain of this thing" and embracing the narrative of a great player going out anywhere but on top. Winning gold would only serve as the awkward "and they all lived happily ever after" at the end of a story of decay. It just doesn't fit.
As Kobe said, his NBA story has to end with a Lakers team that has committed itself to honoring his final days in the sport. In his eyes, the moment just doesn't fit with the continued rise of this new era of stars.
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