Kobe Bryant was the last of my three childhood sport heroes to retire from his game. Playing the final game in one of the most decorated careers in league history last Wednesday, April 13, my athletic heroes and Bryant’s retirement ceremoniously ended my childhood more poignantly than any graduation or successful driving license test ever could.
And similarly to Derek Jeter’s bat slowing down to a batting average of .256 (54 points below his career average) and Peyton Manning throwing ten-yard out-routes with all the grace of a free-falling duck from a hunter’s bullet, it was with heavy heart to watch Kobe Bryant for nearly every one of his 66 games this season.
I say “nearly” do to last week’s unforgettable 60-point performance in his career finale against the Utah Jazz.
As the 18-time All Star rode Marty McFly’s DeLorean back to 2005 seven days ago, all the jumpshots and swished threes seemingly returned after four arduous and painful to watch seasons. Tuning in to each made jumper and drained basket last Wednesday was both a delight and bitter reminder of the all-time great who worn the Laker purple and gold more years than any player in the history of the celebrated franchise.
I first was brought back to the image of the most deadly perimeter scorer in NBA history, victimizing opponents with an arsenal of pull-ups, spin-moves, drives to the lane and mid-range jumpers, slowly crushing the spirit of many rivals and opposing basketball fans.
I then thought of all the wear that time had exhausted on the five-time NBA champion. With a triumphant exit off the world’s basketball stage, I think of an image of a 37-year old Bryant wrapped in swaddling towels of ice packs and bandages after playing only nine minutes of basketball against the Miami Heat in a game on March 30.
This high and low juxtaposition of these two images of the Kobe Bryant retirement tour encompass the dividing opinion many fans have on the most polarizing superstar in league history.
In one corner, Bryant represents the closest likeness of Michael Jordan and was a figure who carried the league between the eras of Jordan in the late 90s and LeBron James, who took control of the league by 2008-2009. He was key reason for USA Basketball winning gold at the 2008 Olympics for the first time since 2000.
Bryant was a perfectionist who always sought ways to improve his game, even enlisting the help of Hakeem Olajuwon to better his offensive repertoire in the post. After tearing his achilles on a play where he was fouled in 2013, Bryant would not leave the floor until he had taken his two free-throws. He was fighter who cared more about winning than anything.
And that fight and perfectionist chip on his shoot-first shoulders is what made yet damaged Bryant.
He was a lonely psychopath who prided the fact he had more championships than likely close friends due to his drive to win before anything else.
The meme-world is filled with photos, instances and jokes a plenty of Bryant taking on multiple defenders rather than pass to an open teammate, implying selfishness. He is widely considered the reason why his former teammate, Shaquille O’Neal left the Lakers in 2004, stymying a potential dynasty that could had matched Jordan’s Bulls and Bill Russell’s Celtics.
Multiplied times, he has referred to himself as an “*sshole.” And former and current teammates would have little complaint defending this sentiment.
Kobe Bryant was never a warm-figure to wrap your arms around, and that is how he would have wanted it. His nickname was not Magic or Pearl or the Dream. Bryant was given the moniker of Black Mamba, the venomous and aggressive snake who has no problem attacking its prey. A recent farewell Nike ad, titled, “The Conductor” features Bryant savoring the jeers of opposing fans and opponents.
And that is how Bryant was, and when I enjoyed watching him the most. Well-intentioned, arguably flawed, always genuine, Kobe Bryant was the most competitive athlete I have ever watched.
He wanted to beat down his competitors, give them the false impression that they could raise against him, then beat them down further.
There are few images as soul-crushing as a Bryant jumper to give the Lakers a two-possession lead deep in the fourth quarter, and it surely is one I will miss and am grateful to have witnessed.