The highest-paid player in the National Basketball Association is currently mired in last place among all active players in both field goal percentage (.305) and 3-point field goal percentage (.202). The Los Angeles Lakers are paying Kobe Bryant $25 million to air-ball shots, with impunity, that he once swished with either hand.
Viral vultures gleefully post vines of Bryant’s precipitous decline. NBA fans will pay double and triple face value of tickets for the privilege of saying that they saw the equivalent of Seattle Slew running Tuesday’s fourth race at Santa Anita at the age of 12. Where for more than a decade Bryant, the greatest backcourt player since Michael Jordan, chased a championship trophy, he is now fleeing personal atrophy—but he has already been caught.
On November 29, Bryant, via The Players’ Tribune website, announced he would retire at the end of this season. The statement, titled “Dear Basketball,” was a requiem that was credited to Bryant but read as if it had an assist from the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson. “ My heart can take the pounding,” Bryant (read: a producer at the site) wrote. “My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
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A question for one of the NBA’s top 10 players of all time and a man who was known for never mincing words: Why will it take you so long to say so long?
Bryant should exit now. The 17-time All-Star should have quit before November 30, when he shot four for 20, including an air ball on the potential game-tying 3-pointer, in a 107-103 home loss to the Indiana Pacers. The Black Mamba, as he is also known, should definitely have slithered away before November 24, when he shot one for 14 (tying the worst game of his 19-year career) in a 34-point loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Bryant has as much business suiting up for the Lakers as the titular character in Fletch once did. But at least those were dream sequences. These Lakers games are nightmares. “There’s so much beauty in the pain of this thing,” Bryant said after the November 30 loss. Beauty? This is like watching a bloated Elvis Presley playing the Las Vegas Hilton in 1975.
The King looked obese and sloppy in his declining years. Bryant, at 37, still cuts a preternaturally youthful, alpha-alien figure. Having shaved his head midcareer (like another 6-foot-6 first-ballot Hall of Famer), Bryant still physically resembles the aught-era Laker antihero we all loved or loved to loathe. The proof of his decline is not in the photos but on the stat sheet.
Like Elvis, Bryant has always been a solo act. He is the one player since M.J. who is as gifted and relentlessly competitive as M.J., but he never aspired to be like Mike in terms of elevating his teammates. Bryant has always been a solitary creature. A Charles Lindbergh of hoops.
You may be too young to recall Bryant’s first All-Star game, in 1998, when he shooed away Karl Malone as the power forward moved to set a pick for him (something the Mailman was the best in history at doing). Or the toxic bio-dome in which the Lakers’ won a trio of championships at the turn of the millennium co-starring Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Tinsel Town was not big enough for the two of them, and so Shaq (another first-ballot Hall of Fame lock), six years older, was exiled.
No longer having to share the marquee, Bryant let his petulance sometimes overshadow his virtuosity. During a 2006 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, the media chided Mamba for taking too many shots (35 in Game 6 alone, but then again this was a squad on which Smush Parker was a starter). As a retort to his critics—one of whom may have been his coach, Phil Jackson—Bryant, in the second half of the decisive Game 7, did not attempt a shot. He never even drifted below the free throw line extended on offense. The Lakers lost by 31.
Every paean to Bryant that you have or will read will note the countless hours he spent in the gym by himself honing his game. Those same stories may or may not also mention that he has for years been estranged from his parents (his father, Joe, played for the Philadelphia 76ers before playing abroad). Bryant is, and always has been, a loner. Even when he steps onto the court with four other men dressed uniformly in uniforms.
The Lakers have long understood, being proximal to Hollywood, that the audience craves a leading man. Bryant has been that figure for the Staples Center faithful ever since O’Neal departed. And that is why, even as the roster aged and Bryant’s talent began to wane, the team awarded him a two-year, $48.5 million contract in 2013. It was a thank-you, sure, but it was also tacit acknowledgement that the audience demanded its star more than it did a good picture. Dwight Howard, the league’s top center at the time, understood that too, which is why he fled the Lakers after only one season in 2013. (Last week, Howard was asked if he learned anything from Bryant. He smiled, paused and then said, “Next question.”)
And so we have arrived at the Kobe desert. The Lakers (2-14) are in last place in the Western Conference with a nucleus of young talent, including rookie guard D’Angelo Russell, who was selected No. 2 overall last summer. Every minute Bryant spends on the floor is a minute one of the young players does not. Every shot he takes is one less that they do. And yet, last week, Los Angeles coach Byron Scott went all Taylor Swift on the Bryant conundrum, saying, “I would never, never, never [bench Bryant for poor play].” Why not? Isn’t that in his job description?
Bryant has always been both relentless and merciless on the court, to teammate and foe alike. But at least he was always brutally honest. As long as he was the best player on the court and the Lakers were winning, who dared challenge him?
The Lakers are awful now, and so is he. And yet Bryant is still chucking up more shots than anyone else in purple and gold. Only now, as the giant orange orb sets in the Pacific, he is suddenly discovering sentimentality and empathy? Bryant, who is triple pump-faking shots before he clanks them, is doing the same with his retirement.
“Dear Basketball” is not a retirement announcement; it’s a Dear John letter. Bryant wants to remain a friend with benefits with hoops until mid-April. Basketball’s retort? “I’ve found someone new. His name is Stephen Curry.”