The Draft

Bryant played in more than 1,500 games, including the playoffs, but his favorite moment came on a stage rather than on the court. “Nothing beats getting drafted,” he told reporters last fall. “Nothing tops that. You dream about that moment. That’s the beginning of it all.”

On June 26, 1996, the Charlotte Hornets selected Bryant with the No. 13 pick in the draft and then-commissioner David Stern officially welcomed him to the NBA. Although the 17-year-old Bryant had skipped college to enter the draft straight out of Lower Merion High School, he was hardly a naïve teenager. Backed by super agent Arn Tellem, Bryant limited his pre-draft workouts in hopes of influencing his destination. Ultimately, that approach worked, as the Hornets agreed to trade Bryant to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac. Later that summer, L.A. would replace Divac by signing Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent.

The marriage between Kobe and the Lakers would last for 20 seasons. In typical Bryant fashion, he opted to rewrite the history of the draft day trade, spinning the events as motivation. “The Hornets told me right after they drafted me that they had no use for me and were going to trade me,” he wrote on Twitter in 2014. “Thank you.”

Ron Frehm/AP
1996
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May 6

Airballs in Utah

While growing pains are inevitable for any 18-year-old rookie, Bryant jumped into his new profession head first. Despite spending most of the season as a reserve for coach Del Harris, he made his mark by winning the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest and earning All-Rookie Second Team honors. The moxie was evident from the start: Bryant preened and flexed throughout his Dunk Contest win, as the singer Brandy, who was his senior prom date months earlier, cheered him on from the stands. “Look at his style, look at his rhythm,” TNT commentator Reggie Theus commented during the contest. “Check out the way he walks. He’s cocky. He looks cocky.”

A few months later, Bryant’s signature lack of bashfulness was on display in defeat as well as victory. In Game 5 of a second-round series against the Jazz, Bryant shot just 4-for-14 from the field and tossed up four airballs in crunch time of the overtime loss. Nevertheless, O’Neal praised Bryant’s “guts” for taking the shots with L.A.’s season on the line and Bryant’s willingness to take game-winners (or game-losers) would become a central part of his basketball identity and image. “I look back at it now with fond memories,” Bryant said of the airballs, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “Back then, it was misery. It helped shape me.”

Robert Sullivan/Getty Images
1997

Budding Star

Still utilized as a sixth man by Harris during his second season, Bryant found far more favorable treatment by the fans during the All-Star voting process. The Lakers’ guard pulled down nearly 400,000 votes, beating out the likes of John Stockton, Stephon Marbury, Jason Kidd and Clyde Drexler to earn a starting spot for the Western Conference. Bryant’s appearance in 1998 would begin a streak of 18 consecutive All-Star selections (there was no All-Star Game in 1999 due to the lockout).

At 19, Bryant became the youngest player in All-Star Game history and he led the West with a team-high 18 points as he got his first taste dueling with Michael Jordan in the midseason showcase (at Madison Square Garden, no less). Asked during a post-game interview whether it would be more difficult for Harris to stick to his “take it slow” approach after Bryant’s high-profile showing in New York City, Bryant grinned and said, “I hope so.”

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
1998
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Rare photos of Bryant

Phil Arrives

Harris didn’t survive the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season and, although Bryant had emerged as a starter in his third season, it was clear the next Lakers’ coach would need to mold his demanding personality and voracious shooting appetite. Legendary coach Phil Jackson, fresh off two three-peats with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, was perfect for the job, although even the Zen Master admitted to a learning curve with Bryant.

"Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game,” Jackson wrote in his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, as excerpted by the Los Angeles Times. “His obsession with Michael was striking. When we played in Chicago that [1999-2000] season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, 'You know I can kick your ass one on one.'"

With the benefit of time, Bryant came to better see Jackson’s motivations, admitting that Jackson’s harsh treatment of him in the media served as fuel. “I was like a wild horse that had the potential to become Secretariat, but who was just too f---ing wild,” Bryant told GQ last year. “So part of that was him trying to tame me. ... [His comments about me in the press] drove me at a maniacal pace. Because either consciously or unconsciously, he put a tremendous amount of pressure on me to be efficient, and to be great, and to be great now.”

Chuck Stoody/AP
1999

Kobe's First Title

Jackson’s arrival produced immediate results: The Lakers won 67 games in his first season, O’Neal led the league in scoring and captured MVP honors, and Bryant averaged a then-career-high 22.5 points despite missing time early in the season with a hand injury.

In the playoffs, L.A.’s talent shone through, most memorably in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Blazers. With their season on the brink of collapse, the Lakers dug out of a double-digit deficit, cementing the comeback with an iconic Bryant-to-O’Neal alley-oop. The superstar-to-superstar connection, unstoppable in that moment thanks to Bryant’s grace and O’Neal’s fury, set off raucous celebrations that saw O’Neal point at the crowd as he ran across the court. Even though the Finals hadn’t even started yet, there seemed little doubt that the Lakers duo was destined to be champions.

After a six-game series against the Pacers, L.A. captured its first title since the “Showtime” era. Bryant, meanwhile, won his first ring in just his fourth season, whereas Jordan needed seven seasons and LeBron James would later need nine. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about all of my 21 years,” Bryant said, surely contemplating how many more titles might be in the offing.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
2000
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April 24

The Repeat

Although the Lakers spent much of the 2000-01 season getting in their own way—with Derek Fisher famously calling the locker room dynamic “fragile like an egg” due largely to tension between Bryant, O’Neal and Jackson—nothing could stop the defending champions in the 2001 playoffs. With Bryant and O’Neal trading monster nights, the Lakers went 15-1 and posted a +12.8 point differential, the highest postseason mark of the three-point era. Allen Iverson’s Sixers were no match in the Finals as the Lakers repeated.

For Bryant, the 2001 campaign represented a full unveiling: He averaged a new career-high 28.5 PPG, he put up an eye-popping 22 shots a night, he topped 40 points multiple times in the playoffs, and he had progressed to the point where he was now in the discussion as the NBA’s top all-around talent. “Who is to say Kobe Bryant isn’t going to be better than Michael Jordan?” former NBA coach Paul Westphal said to the Los Angeles Times. “Let’s get that out on the table right now. He’s a lot better than Jordan was at the same age.”

But Bryant also was hardening his positions against O’Neal (over alleged laziness) and Jackson (over alleged breaches of trust) and withdrawing. In April, Bryant didn’t invite any of his teammates to his Southern California wedding to Vanessa. The O’Neal/Bryant partnership was seemingly invincible on the court, but the egos and personalities involved painted a much more complicated picture.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
2001

The Three-peat

As it turned out, the O’Neal/Bryant tandem had one more title in them, although it would require some serious good fortune in the 2002 Western Conference finals against the Kings.

Although both O’Neal and Bryant were named to the All-NBA First Team in 2002, marking Bryant’s first career selection, it was Robert Horry who saved the day in Game 4 against Sacramento. In the closing seconds, Bryant missed a runner, O’Neal missed a putback and the ball was batted out to Horry, who drained the game-winning three at the buzzer to even the series.

Then, facing a 3-2 deficit and elimination, the Lakers famously attempted 40 free throws in a victory that drew immediate criticism from Kings coach Rick Adelman over the officiating. Presidential candidate Ralph Nader chimed in by sending an open letter to NBA commissioner David Stern, in which he wrote that the officials had “severely shaken” the “sense of impartiality and professionalism” of the contest. Years later, disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy suggested that two of his former colleagues had conspired to extend the series on behalf of the NBA league office.

O’Neal, Bryant and the Lakers plugged through the noise, took Game 7 in overtime on the road, and went on to make mincemeat of the Nets in the Finals to finish off their three-peat. In so doing, they remain the only team besides Jordan’s Bulls to win three straight titles during the three-point era. “How many in a row can Los Angeles win?” Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wondered at the time. “Four? Five? Ten? How good can Shaq and Kobe become? Better than Jordan and Pippen? Montana and Rice? Hell, Lennon and McCartney?”

John W. McDonough /Sports Illustrated
2002
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Controversy arises

Stubborn? Absolutely. Aloof? No question. But criminal? The sports world was forced to confront a new label for Bryant in 2003, when he was charged with sexual assault following an incident at a Colorado spa. Sports Illustrated ran Bryant’s mug shot on the cover with the headline: “Kobe Bryant: Accused.”

The ensuing legal proceedings carried on for more than a year before the criminal charges were dismissed and Bryant settled a civil suit with the accuser. By that point, Bryant’s reputation and popularity had taken a significant hit, he lost endorsement deals, his strained relationships with teammates (especially O’Neal) were pushed even further, and the Lakers were no longer playing at a championship level. However, his marriage survived, as Vanessa sat by his side during a tearful public apology. Many fans weren’t as forgiving.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images
2003

Shaq traded

In July 2004, eight seasons and three titles into his career, Bryant finally was in possession of the Lakers. After years of back-and-forth sniping between Bryant and O’Neal, L.A. traded its All-Star center to Miami for a package that included Lamar Odom and Caron Butler. "The team wasn't going in the right direction, and it wasn't something I wanted to be a part of, so I asked to be traded," O’Neal said at the time.

One obvious flashpoint that soured O’Neal: Bryant’s October 2003 interview with Jim Gray. This is his team, so it's time for him to act like it,” Bryant said of O’Neal. “That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape, when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court. It also means no more blaming others for our team's failure, or blaming staff members for not overdramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning.” He also accused O’Neal of “threaten[ing] not to play defense and rebound if [he didn’t] get the ball every time down the floor.”

O’Neal’s departure came shortly after Jackson announced he was stepping away from the sideline following a loss in the 2004 Finals. "I won't coach this team next year if [Bryant] is still here,” Jackson told GM Mitch Kupchak during the season. “He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid."

Jackson recounted that conversation in his book, “The Last Season: A Team in Search of its Soul,” adding that Bryant told him that he was “tired of being a sidekick” to O’Neal and that the two stars were often caught up in “pettiness [that was] unbelievably juvenile.”

The clean split gave Bryant total control for the 2004-05 season, but it also marked the ending of a dominant Lakers era that had produced three titles and four Finals appearances in five seasons. He had his own team, it just wasn’t very good.

Chris Carlson/AP
2004
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July 12

Kobe turns gunner

Doing things Bryant’s way—without a co-headliner like O’Neal and without Jackson’s coaching touch—proved trickier than he anticipated. The Lakers missed the 2005 playoffs, the first time in Bryant’s career that he hadn’t been in the postseason, and they ranked dead last in defensive efficiency as coach Rudy Tomjanovich didn’t last the entire season. As for Bryant, his numbers were strong 27.6 PPG, 23.3 PER), but the losing dropped him to 2005’s All-NBA Third Team and his me-against-the-world approach ruffled plenty of feathers.

Jackson’s return for the 2005-06 season coincided with the best statistical year of Bryant’s career. That campaign was one long series of explosions. On Dec. 20, 2005, Bryant tossed in 62 points against the Mavericks in the first three quarters of a blowout victory. Jackson, with the win in hands, opted to rest Bryant for the final period, even though 75 or 80 points—or more—was on the table. “The game was in the bag, it was in the refrigerator," Bryant said afterwards. "There was no reason for me to go back in."

The relentless showing summed up Bryant’s varied scoring ability, much to Dallas coach Avery Johnson’s chagrin. "We had no answer for him," Johnson said. "We tried to double-team him, we tried to zone him, we tried to trap him in the backcourt, and nothing worked. He had his way with us tonight."

The 62 points represented a new career-high for Bryant, but it wouldn’t stand for long.

John W. McDonough/SI
2005

81 points

Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign was one for the record books and the stat nerds. He led the league in scoring for the first time with 35.4 PPG, the highest average by any player not named Jordan since the 1960s. He posted a career-high 28 PER and a league-leading 38.7 Usage Rate, the highest single-season mark by any player in Basketball-Reference’s database. He topped 50 points six times, the most since Jordan in 1987. He attempted 27.2 shots every night, joining Jordan and Allen Iverson as the only players to attempt at least that many during the three-point era. This was Bryant, fully unleashed.

Just a month or so after Bryant’s 62-point explosion, he entered the record books with an achievement that speaks for itself: 81. In a Jan. 22 win over the Raptors, Bryant shot 28-for-46 from the field, 7-for-13 from deep and 18-for-20 from the free-throw line to score a career-high 81 points, the second-highest total ever recorded, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100–point game. Bryant’s 81 blew away Jordan’s career-high (69) and surpassed the other highest total of the three-point era (David Robinson had 71 in 1994). Unlike Robinson and David Thompson (who had 73 in 1978), Bryant wasn’t gunning for a scoring title at the end of the season, he was simply going nuts on a random winter night.

Asked to reflect on Bryant’s career this year, a full decade after the 81-point night, then-Raptors coach Sam Mitchell didn’t mince words. “I hate him,” he said. “If I don’t ever see him again, it will be too soon. I hate him.” Bryant, for his part, told ESPN.com recently that his performance was “a testament to the power of imagination,” adding: “There’s a lot of players who come up now who don’t think 80 points is possible. … I always thought 80 was possible. I thought 90 was possible. I thought 100 was possible. Always.”

Noah Graham/Getty Images
2006
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Jan 30

Trade request

The 2006-07 season saw Bryant unveil a new jersey number (No. 24), it saw Bryant claim his second scoring title, it saw him selected to the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams for the second straight season, but it didn’t produce any progress in the playoffs. For the second straight year, Bryant and a forgettable supporting cast—including Smush Parker, who would become a favorite punchline for Bryant—failed to advance out of the first round.

Bryant seemed to come to a realization: All the shots and points in the world couldn’t make up for postseason irrelevance. After all, Bryant topped 50+ points 10 times in 2006-07, the most 50-point games in a season since 1963-64, and he still wasn’t happy. Remarkably, he scored 65 points, 50 points, 60 points, 60 points, 43 points, 23 points and then 53 points in one six-game stretch in March and he still wasn’t satisfied.

In May 2007, after more than a decade with the Lakers, Bryant requested a trade, citing the franchise’s rebuilding plan. "I would like to be traded, yeah,” he said in an ESPN Radio interview. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion there's no other alternative, you know? … At this point I’ll go play on Pluto." He later reconsidered, and the Lakers obviously resisted moving him. Help was coming.

Greg Nelson/SI
2007

Darkness Before Dawn

Less than a year after Bryant’s trade request, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak swung a deal that changed the course of Bryant’s career. In February 2008, L.A. acquired Spanish big man Pau Gasol from Memphis. The skilled, intelligent 7-footer teamed with developing center Andrew Bynum and versatile forward Lamar Odom to give the Lakers a long, physical and talented frontline to complement Bryant.

After the Gasol trade, the Lakers closed the regular season on a 22-5 push before rolling through the Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs on their way to the 2008 Finals. That late-season push helped Bryant claim the first and only MVP award of his career.

Back on the NBA’s biggest stage for the first since 2004, Bryant topped 30 points twice in the Finals but couldn’t overcome Boston’s formidable “Big 3” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. To make matters worse, the Celtics humiliated the Lakers in the closeout Game 6, holding Bryant to 22 points on 7-of-22 shooting en route to a 39-point victory. This year, Bryant told reporters he listened to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as motivation over the next two years because the Boston crowd was singing the song in celebration. “I listened to the song every single day because it reminded me of that feeling,” he said.

Revenge against the Celtics would have to wait, but Bryant’s offseason quickly turned from pain to triumph. As a member of USA Basketball’s 2008 Olympics, Bryant won gold in Beijing by beating Gasol’s Spanish team. When the 2008-09 season opened, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that Bryant placed his gold medal on Gasol’s locker to rub it in and motivate him for the upcoming 2009 postseason. “You can’t finish second in June this year,” he said.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
2008
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June 2

Kobe gets his revenge

Seven long years after his third title—seven years filled with off-court distractions, foundation-shaking trades, Jackson coming and going, a lottery trip, early postseason exits, and a heart-crushing loss to Boston—Bryant finally claimed the fourth ring of his career when the Lakers outclassed Dwight Howard’s Magic in the 2009 Finals.

Perhaps more importantly, from a legacy standpoint, Bryant proved that he could win a title without O’Neal, just as O’Neal had won a title without him with the 2006 Heat. He also took home his first Finals MVP award, thanks in part to a 40-point showing in Game 1. Bryant—who repeatedly told reporters how badly he wanted to win throughout the postseason—was thereby spared from the “He was only a sidekick” knock for the rest of his life.

"It was annoying," Bryant said of the talk about needing O’Neal. "It was like Chinese water torture, just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. I would cringe every time. From the standpoint of responding to the challenge, from people saying I couldn't do it without him, that feels so good, because you prove people wrong."

Bob Rosato/SI
2009
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June 22

Kobe's Fifth Title

Never one for unnecessary political correctness or faux diplomacy, Bryant cut straight to the chase when asked to pick his favorite of his five titles. “I think the standard answer should be, ‘No. They’re all the same.’ But that’s just not true,” Bryant told TNT in a video interview earlier this year. “When we beat Boston in 2010, for me, that’s number one with a bullet.”

Bryant’s selection is no great surprise. Back with his talented Gasol/Bynum/Odom core, plus newcomer Metta World Peace, Bryant exacted revenge on the Celtics for his 2008 Finals defeat. In the process, he claimed his second Finals MVP award and pushed past O’Neal on the career rings count (5-4). “I’m so damn happy we won that 2010 Finals,” he said earlier this year, savoring his “redemption” against the Lakers’ historic rivals. “I would be sick as s--- sitting here right now. … If I lost that championship, I would be miserable.”

John W. McDonough/SI
2010
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June 7

Kobe's slur fine

Bryant’s short temper and unfiltered approach generated headlines throughout his career, but he faced perhaps his biggest controversy since Colorado when he let fly with a profanity and an anti-gay slur during an April 2011 game against the Spurs. Angry over a foul call, Bryant punched a chair and shouted “f----- f----“ towards referee Bennie Adams, words that were captured by the national television broadcast.

NBA commissioner David Stern responded to the incident by fining Bryant $100,000 and issuing a tough statement. "While I'm fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated," Stern said. "Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society." Bryant attributed his actions to “frustration during the heat of the game” yet drew further criticism from activist groups who believed he should issue a formal apology.

In the years after the ordeal, Bryant took a more proactive stand against homophobic language. “Using ‘you’re gay’ as a way to put someone down ain’t ok,” Bryant wrote on Twitter in 2013. Also that year, Bryant expressed public support for Magic Johnson’s son, who is homosexual. “What I can’t tolerate is a lack of tolerance,” Bryant said. He later wrote on Twitter that he was “proud” of Jason Collins for becoming the first openly gay NBA player.

Greg Nelson/SI
2011

Battered, not broken

As he pushed deeper into his 30s, Jackson left the Lakers for the second time, and LeBron James rose to claim the NBA’s alpha-male spotlight, Bryant’s championship prospects slowly dwindled. The arrivals of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were intended to spur another title run for Bryant, but the core seemed doomed from the start thanks to health, chemistry and personality concerns.

But Bryant’s reputation as both a competitor winner both received bumps in 2012. At the All-Star Game in Orlando, Bryant suffered a broken nose after taking a hard foul from Heat guard Dwyane Wade. The injury, one of many that Bryant suffered during his career, forced him to wear masks (both black and white) down the stretch of the 2011-12 season. Bryant smartly cashed in on his pain tolerance and popularity, auctioning one of the masks (with his autograph) for $67,100.

Then, at the 2012 London Olympics, Bryant claimed his second gold medal with USA Basketball by beating Gasol and Spain for the second straight time. In the run-up to London, Bryant predicted that the 2012 team could beat Jordan’s 1992 Dream Team. Jordan “absolutely laughed” at the idea, prompting more braggadocio from Bryant. “He knows I’m a bad motherf-----,” Bryant said of Jordan. “I’m not really tripping.”

The exchange was typical Jordan and typical Bryant, exactly what you would expect from two legendary players whose résumés are bursting with both rings and medals. Jordan might still have him beat on the NBA championship count (6-5), but Bryant wasn’t about to cede any historical arguments.

John W. McDonough/SI
2012

Kobe's Achilles gives in

How many Hall of Fame players can say that perhaps the quintessential moment of their careers occurred during a horrific season-ending injury? Not many, but Bryant is one. While carrying the Lakers on one more push to the playoffs in 2013, Bryant suffered a torn Achilles during a routine drive to the basket. Two nights before, he had poured in 47 points in a win over the Blazers. Now, suddenly, the 34-year-old legend’s career was in jeopardy.

Bryant would conduct an emotional post-game interview at his locker, in which he called the injury “by far” the biggest disappointment of his career, but first he attended to business. Despite the debilitating injury, Bryant stepped to the foul line and buried his two free throws before checking out of the game. There’s no better way to sum up Bryant’s competitive will than that.

Still, the injury left its mark, and not just in the red stitch marks that Nike emblazoned on the heel of his signature sneakers to recognize the Achilles injury. Bryant’s game never fully recovered, as he suffered season-ending injuries in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. He seemed to understand the curve his career was taking almost immediately.

This is such BS! All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I've done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable,” Bryant wrote in a memorable Facebook post. “The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen?!? Makes no damn sense. Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that?? I have NO CLUE. Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing?

“Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me...Then again maybe not!”

The Lakers decided to let Bryant leave on his own terms, as much as possible, by signing him to a two-year, $48.5 million extension in October. Fading star or not, Bryant would depart the NBA as the league’s highest-paid player.

Mark J. Terril/AP
2013
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Oct 21

Kobe passes MJ

After a career spent idolizing Jordan and then drawing comparisons to the great, Bryant notched his biggest victory against the former Bulls star in December. By hitting a pair of free throws against the Timberwolves, Bryant surpassed Jordan to take the No. 3 spot on the NBA’s alltime scoring list, passing Jordan’s point total of 32,292. Although it took Bryant nearly 200 more games than Jordan to pass him, the accomplishment underscored Bryant’s longevity, aggressiveness and polished, evolving game, not to mention the determination required to come back from the Achilles injury.

"It's a huge honor, it's been such a long journey," Bryant told ESPN in a postgame interview. "It's going by really fast, though. It feels great to be at this point. I try to learn so much from [Jordan] in particular. He's been such a huge part of my success and my career, giving me advice and offering mentorship and things like that. That relationship has meant everything to me."

Bryant has since moved past 33,000 career points and he will retire as the league’s alltime leading scorer among guards, as he trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. Even Jordan had to tip his cap. "I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone," Jordan said, in a statement obtained by the Associated Press to mark the occasion. "He's obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball."

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
2014
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Aug 25

Kobe announces retirement

It was time.

In late November, a 37-year-old Bryant announced his retirement at the end of the 2015-16 season by pushing a poem entitled, “Dear Basketball.”

“This season is all I have left to give.” Bryant wrote in the essay. “My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”

In a press conference later that night, Bryant told reporters that the announcement felt like a relief.

“I just had to accept the fact that I don’t want to do this any more,” Bryant said. “And I’m okay with that. … It takes a load off my shoulders. It was the right thing to do. … I really feel at peace with it.”

Although it was strange to hear one of the league’s most unrelenting publicly concede to Father Time, Bryant turned philosophical as he tried to frame his retirement decision in an optimistic light.

“I can see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders any more,” he said. “I can see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain. I know all the hard work it took to get to this point. I’m not sad about it. I’m appreciative of it.”

He was similarly reflective in acknowledging both sides of his career: the championships and the losses, the popularity and the infamy, the milestones and the confrontations.

“The struggles to get there, that completes the journey,” Bryant said. “If you just have championships, there’s no antagonist. There’s no up and down. It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty. Those are the moments I truly appreciate.”

Alex Gallardo/AP
2015

Kobe's final stand

Immediately, Bryant’s retirement announcement tipped off a coast-to-coast farewell tour with new too many twists and turns to count. Autographed shoes for Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Draymond Green. Standing ovations from rival fan bases, even in cities like Philadelphia and Boston. Duels with up-and-coming stars like Andrew Wiggins and Devin Booker. A full-fledged tribute with cameos by Drake and Magic Johnson during All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

By taking off 20+ games, often by sitting out home games, Bryant managed to make it to the finish line, even as he shot the worst percentage from the field and suffered the worst defeat of his career (a 48-point drubbing by Utah in March).

On April 13, 2016, Bryant will take the court for the final time when the Lakers host the Jazz at Staples Center. His finale comes 7,101 days after his debut on Nov. 3, 1996. For perspective, President Bill Clinton won reelection two days after Bryant’s first professional game.

Sporting News/Getty Images
2016