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Kobe Bryant has come so far, it's no time for him to quit now

Almost 75% of poll respondents say injured Kobe Bryant should retire, but is it what Lakers fans really want?

The most surprising statistic of Kobe Bryant's second consecutive lost season has surfaced, and it's not about points or percentages, but perception.

In the wake of the news that Bryant suffered a torn rotator cuff Wednesday, latimes.com conducted a poll asking whether Bryant should retire.

About 74% of 3,418 respondents said yes.

Although there is no way of knowing the exact geographical location of those respondents, reports indicate most of them are from Los Angeles, where folks have spent the last 19 years screaming and hugging and even weeping over Kobe Bryant.

Thus the educated response to this poll would be . . . wow.

It's understandable that Lakers fans are ready for the next era, itching for the rebuilding of a champion, weary of routinely losing by 100 points to the Clippers. But it's difficult to imagine they would want to start that process at the expense of one more chance to watch the toughest of Lakers figuratively and literally giving it one more shot.

As this column reported last week before his injury, a battered and weary 36-year-old Bryant was considering retirement this spring, one year before his $48.5-million contract expired. But if he decides to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery after his Monday examination with Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan Jobe Clinic — thus ending any potential farewell tour 38 games early — there is seemingly no way he will quit.

A relentless competitor who has played more than 9,000 more minutes than anyone in Lakers history retiring from the second row of the bench? A renowned gunslinger who has taken nearly 5,000 more shots than anyone in Lakers history retiring with his shooting arm in a sling? It is difficult to imagine Bryant accepting either scenario. The thought here is that if Bryant chooses to undergo surgery, he will do so with the idea that he wants to be sound enough for one last wild ride into a sunset that could be much prettier than it was week ago.

It's a great idea, it works for everyone, and even if about 74% of Lakers fans don't agree now, they eventually will.

If Bryant is out for the rest of this season, any small chance that the Lakers could win enough to lose their top-five-protected draft pick this summer is gone. With a 12-32 record, they are already one of the four worst teams in the league, and this should ensure they don't move any higher. This means that Bryant would come back next season to play with a top-five pick, a presumably healthy Julius Randle, and possibly a top free agent or two, who would be attainable after the expiration of about $24 million worth of expiring contracts belonging to Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer.

It wouldn't be a championship team, but it should be a competitive team, and how fun would it be to see Bryant try to end his career leading an underdog into the postseason? He'd probably play barely 25 minutes a game to guard his health, he'd be as much facilitator as scorer, but he'd be the nightly attraction and inspiration he was this season, a wise and humbled veteran who has learned to appreciate every minute while openly and often humorously sharing the ride on his final parade.

Did you hear about his tweet after he suffered the shoulder injury? "This is what happens when I pass too much!" he wrote.

Did you see the video he released of team doctor Steve Lombardo informing him of his torn cuff? It's black and white and feels brutally honest.

Now that Bryant is finally wrapping his arms around his city in a giant embrace, let's not be so quick to shoo him away. Not only has Bryant earned a chance to finish his contract, enjoy a farewell tour and say goodbye on his terms without appearing selfish, but fans deserve that same chance without appearing sappy.

Watching Bryant play is like watching living history, and who doesn't want to see him in one more All-Star game, one more playoff game, one more Staples Center showdown with San Antonio or Oklahoma City, one more chance to grab some buzz back from the Clippers? There are a few good memories left in his fall-away jumper, his bared teeth, his pumped fists. Don't wish them away, because they'll be gone soon enough, and when Kobe Bryant has disappeared, the Lakers aren't going to feel like the Lakers for what could be longer than anyone imagines.

There is a reasonable school of thought that Bryant should retire today to allow the Lakers to use the $25 million in cap space to begin the rebuilding process this summer. The idea being, he holds a news conference saying he's giving away the money for the good of the organization, he doesn't have anything else to accomplish, everyone cheers, the Lakers sign a franchise-changing talent and life goes on.

Two problems with that. First, would you give away $25 million, plus more in endorsements, while also surrendering a fulfilling ending to your career? Second, that franchise-changing-free-agent ship sailed last year with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and doesn't return again until the summer of 2016 with Kevin Durant. So who would you rather see next year, the final blazing days of Kobe Bryant with Goran Dragic, or the first tentative days of an overpriced Kevin Love and Dragic?

The Buss duo was foolish to tie up so much money in Bryant by simply handing him a non-negotiated deal in November 2013 when he had not even played a game after his Achilles' tendon tear. They are paying for it now, and will be paying for it after he is gone. But now that Bryant stands on the precipice of that final year, of a priceless farewell, it's a season worth keeping.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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