On Sunday, Players’ Tribune editorial director Kobe Bryant announced on his website that he is retiring at the end of the NBA season. Last night, Bryant traveled to his hometown of Philadelphia for his second job, and the 2-14 Los Angeles Lakers played the 0-18 76ers in Philly for what is likely the last time in his career, barring both teams traversing the boundaries of space-time to clash in the NBA finals.
Because of his connection to the city and storybook career, Bryant had many fans in the audience, and the future Hall of Famer started off on fire. The Lakers won the tipoff, and 10 seconds later, Bryant received a pass on the wing, lost his man around a screen, and hit a three from the top of the key.
On the Lakers’ second possession, Bryant received the ball on the wing again, lost defender Robert Covington with a nasty crossover, and hit another deep three. The next trip down the floor, Kobe lost Covington through another screen, planted at the top of the key just beyond the arc and jacked another one.
He was backpedaling before the ball reached the rim; when it did, it rebounded long off the back rim to DeAngelo Russell, who kicked it back out to Kobe five feet beyond the arc. He collected, elevated, and shot; this time it fell, and the Wells Fargo Center erupted.
After 77 seconds, Bryant had nine points. He airballed his next attempt, on the Lakers’ next trip down the floor. At the end of the first quarter, Bryant had 13 points; at the half, 16. After hitting three of his first four attempts from distance, Bryant connected once on his next 13 tries, finishing 4-17 from three in one of the three most relentlessly atrocious long-range displays in the history of the sport. By game’s end, Kobe had tallied 20 points in 32 minutes on 7-26 shooting. The Lakers lost by 12, the 76ers ended a 28-game skid dating back to last season, and as he left the floor, Philly’s faithful chanted his name.
The 37-year-old is now in his 20th season in the NBA and has logged more total minutes than all but eight people ever, all the while donning the mythic purple and gold. The last three seasons have all ended abruptly for the legend due to season-ending injuries, the last two catastrophic enough to end or emphatically alter the careers of players half his age. In April 2013, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon; in Jan. 2015 Bryant tore his rotator cuff. All of this has cruelly and conclusively revealed the outermost limits of even the most exceptional human bodies.
“I suck right now,” Bryant said exactly one month ago. “I’m the 200th-best player in the league right now.”
But Bryant’s self-appraisal, brutal as it was, was generous! There are more NBA roster spots available than there are players who can consistently acquit themselves against the league’s top players to fill them. Lots of players in the league suck (at least relative to their competition). But few suck as much as Bryant. Last night, against one of the worst teams in the history of the NBA, the Lakers were outscored by 21 with Bryant on the court. So far this season, Bryant’s PER is the second-worst on the Lakers, worse than everyone but Robert Sacre, who is verily some cut, and has only participated in four games. In 31 minutes a game, Bryant is connecting on just 30% from the field and 20% from three, all while racking up literally unbelievable footage like this:
This evidence leads to the realization that there has really never been a player in Kobe Bryant’s current situation. No player of his stature has held on this far past his expiration date to play this many minutes on this bad a team. And so it is that we are finally glimpsing not only how singularly great Kobe Bryant is, but what makes him so.
Age cripples and transforms athletes. They can’t react to stimuli as quickly, or move as quickly or precisely once they react. Often, they gain weight while becoming physically weaker. Within the game, the shape, size, and timespan of exploitable space around them shifts and shrinks. Generally speaking, the best athletes are able to compete longer than worse ones. When we see the last of an athlete gifted enough to extend their career beyond well beyond their physical prime, there are often but a few thin tendrils connecting them to who they were at their peak. The Shaquille O’Neal of the Boston Celtics is not the Shaquille O’Neal who started and finished fast breaks and who bullied or danced his way through giants and whose jersey will hang in the Staples Center and Springfield. The Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls fans cheered was not the Michael Jordan Wizards fans cheered. There are stark, fundamental changes to the way old, once-great players move, the roles they fill, and their ambition, both because they cannot play the way they used to, and because they choose not to.
An aging athlete’s evolution is a matter of necessity, due to ever-increasing physical limitations, but it’s also a choice borne of self-preservation. If a player past his prime conducts himself as if he is still in it, he will be less successful in his in-game endeavors; he will play less; and he will harm his team. So they do what they can do.
Any other player—literally any other player—would acknowledge that they’re late for a date at the glue factory. Any other legend would treat their retirement announcement as the start of the victory lap, contenting himself with spending the majority of games soaking it all in. Bryant, however, refuses to adjust.
Through his illustrious career, Bryant has always taken ill-advised shots, and his ill-advised shots have always involved a lot of pronounced push from his legs. He has long elevated over or faded from two, three, or even four players before falling back to earth with a signature, canted flick of his leg. But now his legs, ravaged from overuse and injury, stiffen during games, an ailment from which he has so far been unable to recover. He can’t explode in any direction, he can’t reliably hoist the ball far enough to bypass the front iron, and the shooting touch that he has spent his entire life cultivating has apparently abandoned him with his rotator cuff. Still, his style of play and his objectives are virtually identical to the Bryant who won five titles! He cannot play that way now, and yet Bryant refuses to attempt to be anything other than what he was in his prime.
“I’m playing like shit,” he said exactly one month ago. “I’m getting the shots, I just can’t make them. (But) at some point, you have to say the hell with all of that and figure out how to put the ball in the hole.”
This quote perfectly encapsulates who Bryant is. He is not playing like shit; he is a shitty player. But what he also is, and what he has always been, is utterly, unapologetically shameless. Shamelessness is different from bravery (which he has) or confidence (which all great players have). Bryant’s shamelessness stems from his single-mindedness. He wants to win, and he wants to further cement his legacy, even if his playing ensures the very opposite. He now finds himself the leader of a team that is—largely because of him and his poor reputation as a teammate—too young and too untalented to do anything but lose, wait, and have another go next autumn. But that’s too late for Bryant, and so he has put his teammates on his back and is dragging them to the bottom. It’s glorious! His shamelessness is why he’s still shooting 18 times a game; his shamelessness is why he is somehow still the Lakers’ best scoring option.
Sports are often likened to war. This is disingenuous bullshit, but many still use language like “gunslingers” and “gladiators” and “going out on their shields.” We rarely ever get to see what that looks like, to see an athlete completely embrace the fiction themselves and die as they lived.
When all else is stripped away, what’s left is Bryant’s warrior spirit and pure shamelessness. The best part of it all is that there are enough games and enough bad wing players in this league that Bryant will almost surely explode for 23 points a few more times before bowing out. Every aberration will only strengthen his resolve.
“I’m not gonna save it for pickup basketball in Equinox in December,” he said last night. “I’m gonna play.”
This is what that looks like. He only has so many games until he walks or else is carried off the basketball court one last time, and I will worship him until he does.
Photo credit: Associated Press