On Sunday, Nov. 29, Kobe Bryant sent out a tweet at 6:50 PM EST, just hours before his Los Angeles Lakers hosted the Indiana Pacers at the Staples Center. It linked to an article posted on The Players’ Tribune, a site designed to give current and former athletes a first-person forum to speak their mind directly to fans with fewer clichés and more substantive material than generally heard in post-game interviews and press conferences. The title read like the opening of a letter: “Dear Basketball.” The accompanying black-and-white photograph of Bryant hunched over, clutching his beloved basketball, gathering himself before allowing us to eavesdrop on his conversation with the love of his life, set the tone for a retirement announcement like no other.
It was structured like a poem ripped from his diary. Whenever Kobe referred to himself in the piece, it was through the lens of his 6-year-old self, the age at which he first fell in love with the game. He detailed the sacrifice and the pain endured, not for the fans or the money, but all for basketball, “Because that’s what you do / When someone makes you feel as / Alive as you’ve made me feel.” Bryant said his heart and mind are willing and able to fight through the struggle, but he confessed his 37-year-old body cannot bear the load. He concluded by bringing the reader back to his childhood, when he would roll up socks into a ball, aim at a garbage can and count down to the buzzer-beating shot, an act later mimicked for years by kids shouting out “Kobe!” as to imitate their hero draining a game-winning basket.
Of course Kobe breathes life into a game with as much passion as a Shakespearean sonnet because he doesn’t have an off-button. Like his and many players’ idol Michael Jordan, “The Black Mamba” has been relentless in his pursuit of perfection, from badgering teammates in practice to demanding a trade away from the Lakers in 2007. Irreconcilable differences between Shaquille O’Neal, with whom he won three championships from 2000-2002, and Lakers management kept them from potentially winning more rings with each other in LA.
The most polarizing point of his life came in July 2003 when he was arrested in Colorado after allegedly raping a hotel employee. A 24-year-old Bryant sat in front of reporters, gripped his wife’s hand and admitted to a sexual encounter with the woman, yet insisted it was consensual. Bryant faced potential life in prison, but a judge later dismissed the sexual assault charges because the accuser did not want to testify in court. The two ultimately settled a civil suit out of court in 2004 under undisclosed terms and Bryant publicly apologized for the ordeal, although he repeated his assertion that it was a consensual encounter. It tarnished a once spotless image and may have left many fans unable to cheer for their former hero.
As time passed, Kobe secured two additional titles without Shaq and a league MVP award to boot. A propensity to shoot his way out of a cold streak caused some to label him a ball-hog, though his career average of nearly five assists per game weakens that claim. His peaks were nearly unrivaled, but a high workload led to injuries, each more punishing than the last. Even cheeky remarks about his ESPN ranking could not prevent him from beginning the 2015-2016 campaign with a career-low shooting percentage. The chatter from talking heads calling for Bryant to call it quits grew with each air ball.
If the poem was a glimpse into Kobe’s mentality as he approached retirement, the post-game press conference on the 29th was a deep dive into his psyche. In the first minute, he flat out admitted, “I don’t want to do this anymore…and I’m okay with that,” Bryant said about gearing up to play week in and week out. He laughed throughout the Q&A, candidly spoke about the regimen he withstands just to not play poorly and said he entered this season knowing it would be his last unless something turned for the best. When asked at what point he realized this was the end, he explained his meditation process: “My mind starts drifting—it always drifted towards basketball, always. Always. It doesn’t do that now.”
The self-aware, calm, sincere demeanor exhibited during the back-and-forth reflected Bryant’s evolution from the effervescent “number 8 jersey” Kobe in his first 10 seasons to the outspoken “number 24 jersey” Kobe who could beat you solely with his confidence. Bryant rejected the notion of quitting during the season because as he sees it, “…there’s so much beauty in the pain of this thing.” He used the word “love” most often when talking about storytelling, creatively inspiring and educating others and referenced working on his auto-documentary released in February, Kobe Bryant’s Muse, which chronicled his life from childhood to present day, as a catalyst into possible new endeavors. What he appreciated the most were the messages from current NBA stars thanking him for imparting wisdom upon them; the respect he received from his peers meant more to him than all other accolades.
With Jordan and Kobe, just two syllables are enough for both legendary figures to evoke agony and elation, admiration and envy, all in the same breath. Jordan inspired a generation of ballers to face each obstacle impeding their path to greatness, whether it be tall guys in shorts on a basketball court or personal vices and demons. Kobe not only took MJ’s lesson to heart, he blossomed into the one player most comparable to Jordan in terms of style and temperament, for better and for worse. He poured soul onto the court and even in his current diminished form, carries himself with a level of comfort and gratitude knowing this is the end.
Originally published in The Ticker