This story appears in the Dec. 7, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Three season-ending injuries ago, Kobe Bryant sat in an empty weight room at the Lakers practice facility when a Mariano Rivera highlight flashed on the television. The Yankees closer was relishing a farewell tour and Bryant was rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon. As part of his therapy, he used his toes to manipulate a towel with a two-and-a-half pound silver weight on the end. He looked up only at the sight of Rivera, striking out a hopeless Met. “How do you know when it’s your time?” Bryant asked. He was genuinely curious, as if awaiting a sign directing him home to Newport Beach.
On Sunday night, he answered his own question. When Phil Jackson coached the Lakers, he taught the team to meditate, but Bryant was never very good at it. His mind drifted to basketball. Now that Jackson runs the Knicks, Bryant still meditates, and his mind still drifts. But recently he noticed it wandering to places other than hoops.
There were so many earlier cues—the ruptured Achilles, then the fractured kneecap, finally the ravaged rotator cuff—but the great ones are always the last to notice. Self-belief empowers and blinds. Bryant’s body told him he was finished, and when he didn’t get the message, his skills joined the chorus. Bryant struggled to understand why Rivera, confounding hitters with his cutter in the summer of 2013, would choose to retire. But in this, the fall of 2015, Bryant’s elaborate pump fakes fooled nobody.
In a few years, we won’t remember 1 for 14 against the Warriors, 6 for 22 against the Blazers, 3 for 15 against the Mavericks. We will only remember 81 against the Raptors, 65 against the Blazers, 63 against the Mavs, because those are the performances that will rerun on TV. The NBA has seen more balanced players than Bryant, but this is a league separated by stars, and few were more captivating. The Lakers, at 2-14, remain the biggest road draw in the NBA. Their cheapest home tickets on StubHub run roughly five times the cost of comparable Clippers seats. They have more Twitter followers than the Knicks, Celtics and Warriors combined. That’s the residue of Showtime, but also the allure of Bryant. When he announced Sunday that this will be his last season, via a poem on The Players Tribune, the site crashed.
Those who thought Bryant’s verse was dramatic must have missed the gold foil-stamped letter presented in black envelopes to every fan attending the Lakers-Pacers game at Staples Center on Sunday night. “Some of you took me in,” the missive begins. “Some of you didn’t.” It was emotional. It was over-the-top. It was Kobe. When he drilled a deep three-pointer with 12 seconds left, you wondered if he had another year left in him, and when he air-balled a second three from the same spot five seconds later, you remembered that he did not. Bryant laughed at the turnabout. More poetry. He finished 4 for 20, and afterward, Pacers guard George Hill hugged him. Then Hill hugged him again.
The end, for Bryant, was never going to be elegant. There are few graceful ways to handle an immortal’s exit and the Lakers tried, perhaps too hard. Two years ago they rewarded Bryant’s loyalty with a ludicrous $48 million contract extension, bonding a famously impatient five-time champion with a rebuilding roster. “Awkward,” general manager Mitch Kupchak admitted. Kupchak’s son, Maxwell, was born the night Bryant made his NBA debut. Maxwell is now a freshman at UC Santa Barbara. How do you cut a player who defined a generation?
Bryant could never ease into a supporting role, so he leaves the picture entirely. “It’s the cycle,” he said. “There’s no sadness in that. I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders. I see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain. I’m not sad about it. I’m appreciative of what I’ve had.”
Jerry West, the former Lakers GM who scouted Bryant at Inglewood High School 20 years ago, once told him: “Don’t play beyond your time.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. What matters is he finally figured out that time had come.