It’s long been an open secret Kobe Bryant basically runs the Lakers. Unofficial head coach. De facto General Manager. His power is just a shade below Dr. Buss’ children’s, and periodically appears to eclipse theirs. As Mitch Kupchak only half-jokingly acknowledged, nobody, not even Phil Jackson, truly “controls” Kobe He’s a force of will, and “co-existence” is largely defined by how often The Mamba runs you over. That clout hasn’t always created an easy marriage between player and franchise, but it’s always been justified in part by Kobe’s game and legendary ability to run through walls.
This season, however, has marked a changing tide. From a physical standpoint, Kobe is no longer the same player. Not even close. And his deterioration seems to be snowballing. To quote Walter White, “nothing stops this train.” Games are missed on a regular basis, and it’s likely to get worse. And while Bryant has certainly been done no favors by a coach who refuses to take the painfully obvious approach of playing him 20-ish minutes rather than testing the limits, nor a front office that inexplicably won’t mandate a 20-ish minute ceiling, if for no other reason than protecting a handsome investment in a player whose presence doubles as a business matter (Seriously, will somebody be the f—— adult in this room?), we may have reached this predicament no matter how things were handled. Kobe is 36, coming off two significant injuries, with about 21 seasons worth of mileage counting playoff minutes. That he’s even on the court is a minor miracle. This predicament was inevitable, even if perhaps irresponsibly accelerated.
But that doesn’t make it any less depressing to watch.
Over the last month or so, I’ve been pondering a hypothetical: Had Kobe known in April 2013 when he blew out his Achilles what he knows now, would he have actually played beyond the 2014 season, the last under his previous contract? Pre-injury, I had a strong feeling Kobe planned to retire then, anyway. He’d dropped casual hints about leaving the game before anybody expected it, and I’ve always sensed Bryant is the rare superstar who’d prefer to leave the world still wanting rather than hang around too long. Kobe is as image-aware as any athlete I’ve ever seen — not a criticism — and manages his brand with surgical precision. He could recognize the value in never allowing the world (and in particular, a worldwide army of Kobe zealots) to witness decline.
But even if I was right about Kobe’s original timetable, that Achilles threw everything out the window. Bryant’s swan song certainly would have come on his terms. This and next season became inevitable, especially with the added motivation from a parade of doubters writing him off as roadkill. (Plus, that whole “$48.5 million extension” thing.)
However, I now wonder if Kobe, knowing then what he knows now, would instead have orchestrated an exit. Yes, that would have meant passing up a rather large chunk of change. (Although call me a Pollyanna, but I’m pretty confident Kobe won’t be hurting for lucrative opportunities upon retirement.) And conceding a challenge as too big. And letting fate rather than his infamous iron will dictate terms. This is a cruel fate, and all athletes, particularly Hall of Famers, typically move heaven and Earth to avoid it. Conceding Father Time’s dominance and his own mortality in one fell swoop would certainly have stung.
Then again, this season has often been a drag, too. There have been moments. A four-game stretch where he averaged 17/8/8.5 and nearly two steals. A career-high 17 assists against Cleveland. Scattered moments where he really did look like Kobe Bryant. These highlights, however, have been book-ended by a dramatically career-low field goal percentage, a decided lack of explosion and even worse defense than heavily anticipated. Plus, the brilliance displayed as a play-maker is offset by crap shoot availability. Rest doesn’t appear to be helping. Whatever gains are short-lived, and a shoulder injury suffered during Wednesday’s loss in New Orleans may add yet another wrinkle. Kobe’s body is trending in the wrong direction, and it’s hard to imagine an uptick.
Bryant plays the game with the goal of consistent domination. I sincerely believe he could find peace finishing his career in “Magic” mode, dishing out 8-12 assists nightly and masterfully picking apart defenses, rather than operating as a pure scorer. But I don’t buy he’s happy winding down his career with mere spurts of greatness.
Which takes us back to April 2013, when Kobe’s Achilles suddenly became spaghetti. Typically, a career cut short by injury is anticlimactic. But in this case, it offered an indelible final image: Kobe walking to the free throw line under his own power, then sinking two clutch free throws to help push the Lakers into the postseason, despite knowing there was no chance in hell he’d actually participate. From a physical and mental standpoint, this process must have been tortuous. That Kobe came through wasn’t merely, in my opinion, the single most impressive feat of his career. It’s quite possibly the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen an athlete do. The moment was damn near heroic. Were that Bryant’s final act as a basketball player, there are worse ways to go out.
In the meantime, any true slippage would have been avoided. Kobe played at a very high level the entire 2012-13 season, and upon carrying the Lakers during a brutal April for a frantic playoff push, the guy was a freaking monster. That Achilles tear represented Bryant leaving it all on the court, a microcosm of a career spent milking every ounce of talent, energy and fortitude. In its own Kobe-ian way, that’s a poetic goodbye, and a more appropriate one.
Obviously, what I’m discussing boils down to aesthetics. While I guarantee Kobe cares about such things — again, dude understands legacy and branding — I can’t say with certainty how he defines them. It’s absolutely believable he’s happy to see this challenge through, even while powerless over the results. Bryant loves challenges, and this is one helluva puzzle. He seems accepting of the limitations, yet determined to overcome adversity.
Still, there are times when Kobe’s voice matches a tired body language. He may not sound “defeated,” but a fate perhaps beyond his saving is conceded. He may not be “out,” but he’s definitely “down,” and whether he can get back up is rightfully in question. Thus, I can’t help but wonder if gifted hindsight, Kobe would have bowed out arguably on top, rather than struggling to stay on the court to lead a mediocre roster.
We’ll never know the answer, but that it’s even reasonable to ask speaks volumes about how this spectacular career may end.
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