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Kobe Bryant's bittersweet retirement much like Jordan's belated farewell

Kobe Bryant isn't leaving basketball on his own terms. His accomplishments, though, will make you forget that he did.

There was a part of Kobe Bryant that could never accept certain realities, certain truths. Like the fact that his 37-year-old body, eroded by nearly 56,000 minutes, chipped away by injuries to his shoulder, knee and Achilles, would never respond the way it once did. Shot after shot, miss after miss and Bryant continued to insist it was only a matter of time before everything clicked. Another playoff appearance, another championship never seemed so far away, yet there was Bryant, night after night, desperately trying to will the Lakers into contention.  

Be patient with me, Kobe often told reporters. It will come back. It will come back. It hasn’t, and it’s looking more likely by the game that it never will, which may be why Bryant elected to announce his retirement, effective at the end of the season, in a post on The Players Tribune on Sunday night. He addressed his words to the game of basketball in a poem, declaring, in the penultimate paragraph, that he was “ready to let you go.”

I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other All that we have.

This couldn’t have been what Bryant wanted, not now, perhaps not this season. All summer it was widely believed this year would be Bryant’s last, that he would cap his career with a 20th—and hopefully healthy—campaign. He would mentor the next generation of Lakers stars, perhaps push L.A. into the playoff mix for at least a few months and then ride off into retirement with another quick, gold medal-winning run with USA Basketball. Yet Bryant refused to declare his intention to quit, and no one inside the Lakers organization could say with any certainty that he would. There was always a nod and a wink, a ‘Yeah, probably’ from Kobe when the question came up, an answer that kept one sneaker firmly planted inside the door.

Kobe Bryant retiring after the season sets himself, and the Lakers, free

A dreadful November changed that. The Lakers are 2–14 and Bryant’s once otherworldly game has never looked so mortal. His shooting percentages are at career lows and if not for the sheer volume of shots he’s taking his scoring output would be, too. Byron Scott, forever loyal, has stood by him, defended him, declared, often in the face of relentless criticism, that he would never bench Bryant, nor discourage him from shooting. Yet there is no question Bryant’s aggressiveness is hurting the team, that shots that should be going to Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell or Jordan Clarkson are being gobbled up by Kobe. 

No athlete wants that, much less one with Bryant’s résumé. A 17-time All-Star, a five-time NBA champion, an MVP, Bryant is on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA shooting guards and on any short list for the greatest players of all time. He seized the league reins from Michael Jordan and was a key figure in two different Laker dynasties, a co-star in one, the alpha in another. In a perfect world Bryant is productive, his decision to retire pushing back against voices encouraging him to stay. 

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Instead, Bryant will take a different, more familiar path. It’s ironic that Bryant announced his decision on Derek Jeter’s website, as those that know Bryant say a Jeter-like farewell season is the last thing he wants. He doesn’t want a piece of the parquet in Boston, a homecoming gift from Philadelphia, a standing ovation from a frenzied Golden State crowd getting ready to watch the next Bryant, Stephen Curry, and his teammates embarrass him. The player who grew up mesmerized by Jordan wanted to go out like MJ should have, with a perfect jump shot sealing another championship. Instead, he will end his career similar to how Jordan's actually did, faded and finding the body just won’t do what his spirit demands from it. 

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The Jordan comparison is apt, because no player came closer to duplicating Jordan’s skills as Bryant did. From the pure stroke to the footwork in the post, from the relentless pursuit of championships to an ability to own the game’s biggest stage, Bryant was close to a carbon copy. It’s a pity the two never squared off in their primes, that Bryant’s vaunted early 2000’s Lakers were assembled a few years after Jordan’s Bulls dynasty. Even now, the prospect of a decade’s worth of Bryant-Jordan matchups is fun to think about. 

Nobody really remembers Jordan’s Washington years, just like few will connect Bryant to this limp to the finish. There will be a time to fully assess Bryant’s career, to stack up his numbers alongside some of the best, to wonder just how much the Kobe-Shaq pairing could have accomplished had egos and petty bickering not torn that Lakers team apart. It’s all part of a two-decade long narrative. Bryant’s final days won’t be pretty, but they will ultimately amount to little more than a footnote. Like most great athletes, Bryant will not go out on his own terms. His accomplishments, though, will make you forget.