HOUSTON – The competitiveness had been flushed out of the Los Angeles Lakers' season months ago, and Kobe Bryant grudgingly settled into the ceremonial nature of this final run. Every day now, he has to settle for "This is Your Life, Kobe Bryant." One by one, they come calling. Here, it was Hakeem Olajuwon. James Harden. Elvin Hayes. Calvin Murphy. Steve Francis. One more interlude of, "Do you remember the time?" with old adversaries and older legends.
Between the bows and waves, the posed pictures and signed sneakers and endless line of bro hugs, something happened on Sunday. Suddenly, something surfaced in another loss at the Toyota Center. Old Kobe, old times. Twenty seasons on the job, two games left in his career and Kobe Bryant gave the Rockets 35 points on an array of beautiful, daring and famous shots.
"I should not still be doing this," Bryant told The Vertical. "But I am."
Most of all, Kobe Bryant is still standing. And maybe this is the greatest victory of the Lakers' most relentlessly losing season. Bryant isn't stumbling across the finish line in a pretty suit and walking boot and sling, but pushing through the tape with No. 24 on his back, Nikes on his feet. One more road game in Oklahoma City on Monday and it's finally farewell on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Against all odds, Kobe Bryant goes home for goodbye on two feet, goes home for goodbye on the best terms he could've ever dictated.
"It feels so good," Bryant told The Vertical. "For the last three years, I haven't been able to do it. Achilles. Knee. Shoulder. Serious injuries. My preparation was right. I worked and worked for my body to be able to get through this."
"Coming into the season, I had the concern: Could I make it all year?" Bryant told The Vertical. "I had the fear. But I embraced that fear, and then I let it go. I realized: I can't control it. I prepare. I do all the work. If that happens, it happens. And I stopped thinking about it."
All around, the boom mics hung over us. His documentary crew comes everywhere now, chronicling every interaction, every interview. For a moment, Bryant was still thinking about life on a contender. He is nodding his head, insisting this is true: "Listen, I believe this: On a better team, I could play a lot better. Physically, I know I could do so much more. I found that rhythm, that balance. But after three major injuries, to get to the end [healthy], this means the world to me."
There are two stories to end this NBA regular season: The Warriors' historic march to 73 victories, and Bryant's historic uneven, unnerving final season. They'll remember Bryant as one of the NBA's great champions, remember a relentless pursuit of perfection. Oh, he'd love to be chasing 73 victories, but mostly he wishes he was pursuing that sixth NBA title.
Somewhere along the way, Bryant had to let go. There wouldn't be winning this season. There would be bouquets. He's never minded everyone watching him, everyone feting his greatness. So started the legacy tour, so started a long, slow trot around the bases. Nevertheless, Kobe Bryant let himself think for a moment about that Golden State-San Antonio game on Sunday night, about the parallel universe of winning ball that's left his life.
Had the Lakers still been a contender – had everything not crumbled around him – Bryant swears this would all be so different, so much more suited to his persona.
"The ovations wouldn't be here," Bryant told The Vertical. "We'd be amidst cutthroat competition. In this season, I've been able to come up for air, take the blinders off, look around, soak it all in – and say thank you. Had we been competing for a championship, there's no way I'd allow all this to happen. We'd have one goal in mind and that would be winning the championship.
"In the end, this wasn't hard to accept. I can accept reality and move on."
Hours earlier on Sunday, outside the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown, there were hundreds of people waiting for him. They wore his No. 24 Lakers jerseys. They wore his No. 8s. Between the lobby glass doors and the steps into the Sierra Stage Coach team bus, the voices boomed, "MVP … MVP," throughout the sleepy afternoon streets here. It was an old echo, a long-ago truth. One more time, Bryant gave them the business here, 35 points at 37 years old. One more time, he made an arena chant his name over big shots and bigger memories.
Bryant shouldn't still be doing this, but he is. So here he comes, Los Angeles, here he comes Wednesday night for his final goodbye at Staples Center. Against all odds, against the skyline of a monumental championship life, Kobe Bryant is still standing.