A year ago next week, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant came to Target Center for yet another game in what will be a Hall of Fame career and left as the NBA’s third-leading scorer of all time, surpassing idol Michael Jordan on a memorable evening when the Timberwolves stopped the proceedings so owner Glen Taylor could present him the game ball.
Afterward, Bryant expressed surprise, noting “you’re not expecting a hug” after he has played the villain all these years in opposing arenas.
He better get used to it.
Ten days after he announced this season will be his last, Bryant returns to Minneapolis for the final regular-season game, arriving Wednesday night in the midst of an eight-game road trip in which the first five nights have been the kind of loving farewell he always said he never wanted.
“It’s extremely uncomfortable for me,” he said. “The amount of respect I have for fans on the road, I honestly, if anything, should be thanking them. Just a show of mutual respect and appreciation for each other, to me, is enough.”
Now 37 years old with a body showing its age, Bryant played his first NBA minutes in a game against the Wolves 19 years ago last month. It was the first of 1,298 regular-season games played in a career that will include five NBA titles, 17 NBA All-Star invitations and the 2007-08 league MVP by the time he presumably plays his final game in April.
A man who answered questions in English, Spanish and Italian the night he announced his decision last week, Bryant reached superstardom because of the same blunt single-minded dedication that made Jordan great, at a time when Bryant’s international appeal coincided with the NBA’s explosive growth globally.
“It’s impossible for me to sit here and describe what he has meant,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week. “He came into this league with an unprecedented desire to compete and be the best and he’s the exact same person he is today, with all the good and bad that comes with it. But he remains the exact same person.”
Bryant entered the league directly out of a Philadelphia area high school in 1996, his agent muscling Bryant’s way to Los Angeles and a Lakers team he had worshipped since he was a child. He did so one year after a kid named Kevin Garnett led the way from high school to the NBA with the Timberwolves, and now Bryant will leave it he says without hesitation or regret.
Garnett, meanwhile, is contractually obligated to play one more season after this.
Bryant told close friends, including Jordan, as long ago as last summer that this season will be his last. But, like nearly everything in his long and driven career, he carefully controlled the official announcement until a quiet Sunday afternoon last week.
He did so by composing prose, saying goodbye to basketball on Derek Jeter’s the Players’ Tribune website in which Bryant has invested some of his many, many millions.
“You gave a 6-year-old boy his Laker dream and I’ll always love you for it,” he wrote. “But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give.”
The announcement’s timing specifically gave Lakers fans the first chance to share the moment at a home game that night and took him home to Philadelphia two days later so he could start that farewell tour in the city that nurtured him.
“Finally I just had to accept the fact that I don’t want to do this anymore, and I’m OK with that,” Bryant said on the night he announced he’ll retire. “Once I accepted that, it became time to let everyone know. It takes a weight off my shoulders and everybody else’s. It was just the right thing to do. … I honestly feel good about it, I really do. I feel at peace with it, and I’m excited for what’s to come obviously.”
Bryant said he knows the time is right because his mind no longer drifts immediately to basketball like it once it did, a change he calls as a husband and father of two young daughters “my first indicator that this game isn’t something I can obsess over for much longer.”
At age 39, Garnett intends to play on, having accepted limited playing time and primarily a role as mentor to Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves’ other young players while he hopes to pursue team ownership when his playing days are done.
Bryant, meanwhile, has decided this season is it. He played only 41 games combined the two seasons before this one because of injuries, including a torn Achilles’ tendon, and is something of a misfit on a lousy Lakers team rebuilding with youth. It’s a situation Kupchak acknowledges is “awkward” but also unavoidable given all Bryant has accomplished.
Bryant, too, is being called a mentor to his team’s young players, but in a way that’s very much his own. His way demands as much from others as he expects from himself, an approach that Kupchak doesn’t expect will change.
“He has never been a guy to put his arm around a player and slowly walk to the locker room,” Kupchak said last week. “I gave up hoping he’d change his approach 15, 18 years ago. He is what he is, and I’m thankful for it.”
He is the Black Mamba, nicknamed after one of the world’s deadliest snakes. He is considered the most relentless winner of his generation.
“I don’t know if there’s any one moment,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said, “but throughout the course of his career, you didn’t want him to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line because you knew he was going to beat you.”
Those moments are gone, replaced at best by what Lakers coach and former teammate Byron Scott calls “glimmers” of what Bryant once was and can be in moments again. One night, he shot unashamedly back home in Philadelphia during a loss to the then 0-18 Sixers. The next night, he scored 31 points in 35 minutes in a victory at Washington, the Lakers’ third in their first 18 games, after he visited the White House and with President Obama earlier that day.
Completing the journey
Bryant knows his time is almost gone, but he said he has no regret.
“There’s beauty in that,” he said. “It’s going through the cycle, it’s the natural progression of growth and maturation. There’s no sadness in that.
‘‘I’ve had so many great times, right? I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders anymore. I see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain because I know all the hard work it took to get to this point. I’m not sad about it. I’m very appreciative of what I’ve had.”
Garnett agrees, saying Bryant’s “great accomplishments stand for themselves” and will endure.
“It’s not sad,” Garnett said. “You think about a world without Kobe Bryant. It says a lot. He’s made his mark on this game and not only on the Lakers’ organization, but the ‘2’ [shooting guard] position and basketball itself, sports. I can keep going. It’s just great having something like that in our game, let alone sports itself.”
Bryant said he began planning for retirement when he was 21 and met with fashion designer Giorgio Armani in Milan, Italy, learning how Armani built his empire after he had turned 40.
He has spent the past 16 years “dabbling” in this and that, “trying to figure out exactly what passion is” and calls himself a “storyteller” wanting to tell inspiring ones and ready for the rest of his life.
“I was born to play basketball,” he said, “but I had to really work to find what comes next.”
He already appears to be seeing his life cinematically, saying the best part of his story is the failures, not the successes.
“That completes the journey, right?” Bryant said. “If you just have the championships, there’s no antagonist there, no up-and-down. It’s the ugly moments that create the beauty at the end of the film. Those are the moments I truly appreciate.”