Don't pity Kobe Bryant. He doesn't want your pity. His career is ending exactly the way he thought it would all along.
On his terms and his alone. He entered the league as an 18-year-old rookie launching air-balls in the closing minute of a playoff series against Utah and seems determined to to close it in bookend fashion.
Bryant announced his retirement by way of poem on The Players Tribune the other day. After, when he found nothing but air on a hero-ball attempt from 28 feet against the Indiana Pacers, he had a more traditional press conference, filled with many insightful quotes.
Q: On what he considers the best part of his story:
Bryant: The (championships) that we've lost and the struggles to get there. That completes the journey. If you just have championships, there's no antagonists. There's no up-and-down. It's the ugly moments that create the beauty at the end of the film. Those the moments that I truly appreciate.
And that's kind of the enigma of Bryant. He's viewed his whole career not as someone content to be the most talented player on a basketball team but rather like he was both the director and the star of a sports movie. He had to be the sun that all the planets revolved around. The successes and failures of his teammates and the results of the games themselves were just footnotes designed to make the plot more dramatic and tense.
It didn't have to be this way, you know.
My favorite Kobe was the one that spun around Shaquille O'Neal's orbit from 2000-2004. That guy was an absolute killer. O'Neal was the Lakers' unquestioned best player, the behemoth who hammered opposing front lines to submission and just when opponents thought they could steal games at the end by putting O'Neal at the line, there was Kobe to extinguish their hope.
The same drive that fueled Bryant to be better than O'Neal was the one that doomed their partnership in the end. Bryant resented the way O'Neal let himself go during off-seasons, using the free time to make movies or rap albums. He resented the way Shaq mailed in regular season games, especially if they weren't nationally televised. He hated that O'Neal got the Finals MVP hardware when he always viewed himself just as important to those title-winning teams.
After the 2003-04 season, in which they were obliterated by a tougher and more unified Detroit Pistons squad in the Finals, Bryant drew a line in the sand with owner Jerry Buss, and O'Neal wasn't helping matters any with outrageous salary demands. Kobe was younger, flashier and figuratively hungrier, as opposed to Shaq's literal hunger. So the big-man was dealt to Miami, for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a low first-round pick that wound up being Jordan Farmar. An absolute heist for Pat Riley and the Heat.
It's telling that Bryant's best season --apex Kobe-- came in 2005-06. He had 27 games scoring 40 or more, six of 50 or more, and that famous 81-point night against Toronto. The Lakers went 45-37 and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Suns. O'Neal won another championship with Dwyane Wade.
For Bryant, who modeled his game, his approach and his mannerisms on Michael Jordan, it was as though the Shaq years were just one long internship --his substitute for the job training that Jordan received at North Carolina playing for Dean Smith-- and that his real career began post-O'Neal, when the Lakers were his team. His 2005-06 season can be seen as an homage to Jordan's 1986-87 and 1987-88 campaigns, when Jordan set fire to the league. Those Bulls teams won four playoff games combined those two years.
Bryant was at the height of his powers and he had Phil Jackson on the bench. All he needed was a legit sidekick, and two years later Pau Gasol fell into his lap. The Lakers took advantage of a Spurs fallow period, where there was the Grand Canyon between their third and fourth-best players, to make it out of the Western Conference and capitalized on a couple of breaks to win titles in 2009 and 2010. In the former, a gimmicky Orlando Magic team upset LeBron James' juggernaut Cavaliers and ruined what would've been a compelling Finals. In the latter, Kendrick Perkins, back when he was a valuable defender, injured his knee in Game 6 of the Finals, swinging that series.
And that was it. The next season, the Lakers got swept out of the playoffs in the second round by Dallas, Jackson retired and they haven't been relevant since. Adding Dwight Howard proved disastrous and Mike D'Antoni aided and abetted Bryant's downfall, playing him practically every minute of every game for a two week stretch in early April. In Game 78, Bryant's Achilles gave out. He's never been the same. His career will end without a playoff appearance since 2011.
The easy thing to do would be to compare Bryant's foibles to Tim Duncan's grace, to turn their contrasting choices into a Goofus & Gallant narrative that will forever be attached to their respective legacies. Duncan was the ultimate teammate whose sole focus was winning, regardless of his numbers, his salary, his popularity. Bryant was the unrepentant chucker whose sole focus was his personal glory, with the fame, salary, endorsements and privilege that came with it. Even in this bitter end of a season, on a laughingstock team, he's making more money than every other player in the league.
The thing is, as legendary as Duncan has been and continues to be, and despite the reality that basketball historians will likely view him as the superior player by just a hair over Bryant, their rivalry never had the fire that the easy comparisons of Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain did. Kobe's never viewed the stoic Duncan as the standard to compare himself against. He's always chased Jordan.
If anything, Bryant's whole career has been a lesson on the folly of comparing players. No two are truly alike. Bryant came as close as humanly possible to copying Jordan for both good and ill, only his interpretation was like a sports movie re-telling of Jordan's career, hitting most of the big moments right and hiring a convincing enough actor for the portrayal. The movie got a few details wrong here and there, some of the action scenes looked forced and embellished for dramatic effect and the co-stars were all wrong. Only at the end, where a ground-bound Jordan was merely good rather than transcendent for the Wizards, did the re-enactment really miss the mark.
Bryant was too obsessed with winning the way he thought Jordan would've, instead of what gave him the best chance to win. For someone who was so adamant about how important trophies were to him, he sure made curious choices in the golden years of his career.
It wasn't surprising to see Kevin Durant, a modern superstar at his peak, stick up for Bryant even though the Lakers legend never asked him to. Durant is 27. Jordan's career was almost over by the time KD could understand or appreciate it. His formative years were spent watching Kobe.
And that's what will happen to future generations, as Jordan's essence will be lost as one facsimile plays "telephone" with the next, distilling Jordan's brilliance into an ever grainier copy of a copy of a copy.
The end of the film has arrived for Bryant and overall it was a pretty entertaining show, with some interesting plot twists. But in the end, it was still a re-make, and I would've preferred to see a wondrous artistic talent who spoke so passionately about "story-telling" create something original instead.