KOBE Bryant is used to having a swarm of defenders all over him. He actually relishes the defensive attention, particularly when the clock is winding down and he has the floor spaced out for his last-second heroics. Bryant would pump fake, contort his body in the most unimaginable angle, and then unload the shot.
Nothing but net. Game over, Los Angeles Lakers win.
Not today, though. His body ravaged by the accumulated toll of the hardcourt wars, a 37-year-old Bryant has acknowledged his mortality. He will play out the final games of the regular season and then officially archive the jersey. Yes, the wonder kid who convinced then Lakers manager Jerry West to move veteran center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets so the Lakers can draft him in 1996, has grown old and could no longer compete at the level he used to. As this piece was being written, the Lakers are languishing in the sewers with a 2-14 record and Bryant is coughing up just 15 points per game.
Now that he has announced he is retiring, Bryant is telling everybody that the decision was not that difficult to make. Oh, but it was. It was just a year ago when Bryant was telling Sports Illustrated that retirement scares the hell out of him. Truth be told, it is never easy for an athlete to admit that his playing days are over. Heck, Michael Jordan returned to the game even though he had nothing more to prove simply because he felt the need to scratch an itch. In Bryant's case, he mastered basketball even before he memorized the alphabet and parting with the game is like having a part of his body severed. No less than former Lakers coach Phil Jackson opined that while Bryant may be finished as a Laker this season, the 'Black Mamba' could end up joining another team next year.
So what prompted Bryant to make the call?
That Bryant's body is already betraying him is a given fact. But there are other factors worth noting, too, like how some observers have come to see Bryant as a liability than an asset for the Lakers. Before Bryant made the announcement, there were calls from some observers for the Lakers coaching staff to bench him and let the younger players take over and blossom. When Bryant shot a woeful 1-of-14 from the field in recent loss to the league-leading Golden State Warriors, the calls hit the roof and coach Byron Scott had to tell the media that benching Bryant "is not an option."
By announcing that he is finished, Bryant is now giving Scott that option. It really makes no sense for Bryant to punish his body because the current crop of Lakers are not going anywhere. Bryant did not get the team he wanted and it all started when LaMarcus Aldridge opted to join San Antonio. Bryant relieved himself of the enormous pressure of carrying a ragtag crew.
More importantly, Bryant's public address suppressed the catcalls and instantly transformed them into accolades. If you don't believe it, just check out the avalanche of heartwarming messages Kobe has been receiving immediately after he made the announcement. Regardless of Bryant's statistical output these days, fans are coming out in droves to give him a grand farewell tour.
Make no mistake, Bryant honestly believed he could still make an impact this year. He predicted that the Lakers would make the playoffs and worked earnestly to get himself back in shape. But barely a month into the season, Bryant was calling himself the "200th best player in the world." The coaching staff even gave an "angry" Bryant a day off from practice so he could let out some steam.
Bryant's appraisal of his current self is not really far off the charts. His shooting percentage is the lowest in the league among players who had taken at least 150 attempts. Bryant's three-point percentage (19%) is not only a career-low but actually a league-low among players who had taken at least 60 attempts from the trey area.
So, yes, Bryant may be at his lowest ebb these days, but he just acknowledged it by announcing that he's done. He took away the expectations and the hopes of his followers that he still has some tricks left. This admission made everybody, including Bryant, comfortable knowing that the last few games of the season will all be about handing the 'Black Mamba' a royal adieu.
Then again, when you think about everything that he has done (i.e., five NBA titles; 32,670 points, third-most in history; 17-All Star selections, second most in NBA history), Bryant is actually not retiring. He is just moving to another level - the pantheon of greats.
Hall of Fame in the first year of eligibility?
It's money in the bank, just like Bryant's last-second jump shot.