In a few hours Kobe Bryant’s career will be over. It was very long.
He wasn’t the best player of his generation—that was Tim Duncan. He wasn’t the best Los Angeles Laker—that’s still Magic. He wasn’t even the best Kobe Bryant—“Kobe Bryant” being, after all, a poorer derivative of Michael Jordan, a competition he conceded by choice with every meticulous mimicry in a career built of them. Mostly he was durable. He was almost as good at his best as Tracy McGrady was at his, and, sure, he was good in the playoffs, and he sustained it for a really long time. That sure as hell is something—for better or for worse, Pete Rose really does have a lot more base hits than Mickey Mantle, you know?—just as surely as it’s not what Kobe Bryant wants it to be.
“Black Mamba” was always a weird-ass, inappropriate nickname, and not just because Kobe was such a lonely weirdo he had to give it to himself. A black mamba strikes once, and definitively, and has won; its eFG% is through the roof; it is, precisely, the anti-Kobe. He is not a mamba. He is rust; arthritis; arteriosclerosis. Tartar buildup. Mold. He kept at it, when a more sober player would have had too much dignity for it and a better one wouldn’t have needed to. He accumulated. His defining trait wasn’t potency, but persistence. He wasn’t ever the best, but he was the most. Or almost the most. The next-most.
Anyway he’s done now. He leaves as the worst player in a league whose trends and standings repudiate how he played and what he stood for; the game belongs to darting guards and positionless hyper-athletes, rewards pace and space and eager ball movement, and mostly rounds long-striding midrange-chucking wings down to Gerald Henderson. The Lakers are in ruins; they destroyed themselves for him. I’ll miss him terribly next season, and then never again.