Kobe Bryant was always the smartest man on the floor so it figures the player who couldn’t stand losing would find a way to win in retirement.
With his body old and tired and broken there was no way for a graceful end on the basketball court. His jump shot has abandoned him. The brilliant burst of a step is gone. He can’t drive, he can’t defend and his Lakers have little hope of winning 20 games let alone one final NBA championship for him.
His play has been awful to the point of humiliating. The narrative being written is not one of a great hoops warrior making one last stand against age but a that of a player who should never have come back If he wasn’t one of the greatest players in history and making $25m, Los Angeles would have pushed him out weeks ago. He stood this week on the verge of destroying the goodwill he has worked to rebuild the last 12 years.
Then a poem under his name appeared Sunday evening that announced the obvious: this is his last season. And the poem was exquisite. Short, poignant and beautiful. He turned a wretched last run into a love letter for the game that is failing him now. Even if his management team had a hand in writing it, it was something he would have played a large part in. Nobody else could do this. Not Jordan. Not Shaq. Not even LeBron, who has managed to make his name mean something more than basketball. No one else is smart enough to transform a stumbling dance into a nimble four-month farewell.
He wrote in The Players’ Tribune:
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
Once again, Kobe has turned a bad situation to his favor. He has done this before, of course. He made a petulant young player, dismissive of Shaq, become reborn as a solo superstar. He once faced life in prison after being arrested on suspicion of rape and yet NBA titles and Olympic gold medals seem to have wiped that moment from his past, although some would say that such grave allegations should not be erased by mere sporting success.
Now with a few typewritten lines he has erased his catastrophic decline from the final script. The story is no longer about the wayward jump shot and the fact younger, faster men are blowing by him on the court but will now be a season-long celebration of his legacy. There will be Kobe Bryant nights and standing ovations in arenas where fans once spat his name. He will be given cars and motorcycles and rocking chairs and all anyone will remember will be his pregame thank you on the video screen and not the shots he clanks in the games.
He has made himself an global superstar in a way no other player can. He plays to screaming crowds all over the world because he has a bright and active mind that is curious about other places. As Tracy McGrady, beloved himself in China, once told me: “You can’t fake caring,” overseas. Kobe has never faked his interest in China or Turkey or Japan or any other place where he has visited. At Olympics he has never been the ugly, entitled basketball star hiding away in a luxury hotel and instead has watched other American teams compete – the US’s most famous fan in the stands.
The next few months will be the worst for him because the man who is smart enough to do almost anything he wishes after basketball, will find it impossible to let go. He’s too competitive, too driven, too consumed with winning to find a new hobby. He isn’t patient enough to coach and could never play the politics of running a team. His basketball friends are few. His team-mates have always respected him but they have never loved him. His retirement poem was nothing if not sincere. His love has been basketball.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.
Kobe could have faced these final 66 games with dread. There wasn’t much to look forward to. With his shot gone and his team a troubling mix of too young and too old, the end was bleak. Somewhere he had to know he had nothing left and rather than carry on the farce of pretending to stoically fight through a losing situation, the most competitive man found a way to win. This time it was words that came off his fingertips and not a basketball.
And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,
In the coming weeks there will be more bad games than good. His lasting legacy could have been that of a broken player who didn’t know when to duck off the stage. But, determined to emerge victorious, he found a way to salvage his last days on the floor. He rewrote the ending with a 257-word poem titled Dear Basketball.
Even in this season of losing Kobe Bryant found a way to win the finish.