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Three years ago, Kobe Bryant carved into a steak at a Minneapolis restaurant and considered the end of everything. His body hadn't begun to break down, but it turned out that betrayal would come soon. On a frigid November night, Bryant had started to anticipate all the years and all the young legs getting over on him, inspiring a declaration that he'd never stay too long.
"Just thinking about some of the guys that I take advantage of now, taking advantage of me later – that doesn't sit too well with me," Bryant told me.
Three years later, they're getting over on Kobe Bryant. For as excruciating as it's been for everyone to watch him struggle this way, it's far worse for him to endure. He can't work his way out of this trouble. He can't lose himself in the practice gym and make it all better.
It isn't ending for Kobe Bryant.
It is over.
He isn't losing it.
"My body knows it's time to say goodbye," Bryant wrote in a poem made public on Sunday night. The inevitable is etched within the record now. He is a forever talent in the NBA, a forever achiever of five championships and an MVP. Bryant has been a tortured genius, a talent born of relentless repetition and peerless passion. Few ever cared so deeply for a craft, ever committed such deep devotion.
For months, Bryant suspected this would be his final season. Two things that could've inspired his return for a 21st season – a strong comeback performance and a rapidly developing supporting cast – never materialized this season. The Lakers are a gutted shell, wrapped within an icon sapped of his powers. The result is painful to watch.
Bryant desperately wanted that sixth championship to match Michael Jordan, but it never happened. Five years ago, the Lakers had gone to back-to-back NBA Finals – and would never come close to returning again. After beating Oklahoma City in the Western Conference playoffs in 2010, Bryant was walking out of his news conference as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were walking into the room. As they passed in the corridor, Bryant stopped and shook his head and told them, "You all are two bad mother-------. I'm glad I'm done with you."
What Bryant was trying to say, of course: Done with them for that season. As it turns out, he'd never play deeper into the playoffs than those young stars again.
Here he was, about to turn 32 years old, and walking out of the arena in Oklahoma City and he told me that victory had strangely rivaled the fulfillment of the 2009 NBA championship, the 2008 NBA Finals appearance. They were versions of his younger self, and holding them off promised to be an impossibility.
"More than last year or the year before, this means something because now they're trying to force me out," Bryant told me. "They're trying to force me out. And I'm not going anywhere."
Two years later, the three of them would spend the summer together with USA Basketball on the way to the London Olympics. Back in 2008 with Team USA, Bryant could still intimidate LeBron James – with those around the league's two biggest stars marveling at the ways with which Bryant preyed on James' vulnerabilities. Only, James was a different man in 2012 – an NBA champion now – and had surpassed Bryant as the world's best player.
Bryant could no longer mess with James and gain a competitive advantage come the NBA season. So, he spent the summer imploring Westbrook that he couldn't let Durant win another NBA scoring title, trying to send him back to Oklahoma City with gunning on his mind. Kobe couldn't worry about the East anyway – he needed to get out of the West again.
Eventually, the Lakers' infrastructure crumbled and Bryant had no one to ease him into a complementary role. After missing 16 of 20 shots in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night, Bryant travels to Philadelphia for his final game in his childhood home on Tuesday. The Lakers will play the 76ers, who have lost 28 consecutive games, the most in modern professional sports history – and the Lakers will still probably be the underdog.
That's the destitute place these Lakers and Bryant exist now, the residue of a fractured franchise and a broken-down body. Three weeks ago, Bryant still held onto hope that there was a way out of this trouble, that minimal practice time in the preseason would give way to stronger legs and balance, that repetition would get him back into a groove. Outside a waiting car at the Barclays Center, on the night that was the beginning of his goodbye tour, Bryant was still trying to convince himself that there was good basketball left in him, that he could resurrect a respectability to his game.
"I get held to much higher standards than most of my peers," he told me. "If I have a bad shooting night, it's, 'He's in the grave. He's in the coffin.' Look around the league, and other players have bad shooting nights – and it's just a bad shooting night.
"But the expectations that they have for me, they're actually something that I appreciate. Achilles injury. Fractured knee. Torn shoulder. Twentieth year in the league. Thirty-seven years old. All that, and the expectations are that I average 30 points.
"But I appreciate those standards, because it's something that still pushes me, still drives me.
"Let's see what I can do."
There's no magic left to Kobe Bryant's game, no reconciliation of memories and reality. This is hard to watch, but harder to live. This is everything that he never wanted – all those younger guys getting over on him now. As a fading thirty-something legend, there are no more mind games to play on a younger generation. Mostly, there are no more to play on himself. These are the final months and weeks now, the excruciating end, and goodbye can't come soon enough for Kobe Bean Bryant.