For better and for worse, Kobe Bryant has been synonymous with the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. Whether you knew basketball or not, you knew Kobe. No last name necessary. He was a teenage star, announcing at 17 that he would enter the NBA draft before he even went to his senior prom (with pop star Brandy). Extraordinarily gifted, he was once a contender for the mantle of greatest player of all time.
That conversation, however, is long over. Now, hobbled by ailments that plague lesser mortals — bad knees, sprained ankles, a torn rotator cuff and a ruptured Achilles tendon — Bryant has announced he will retire.
On the court, he has been alternately dazzling and disappointing, a polarizing figure whom fans blamed for team failures and exalted for team championships. Disciplined and ferociously competitive, he is the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer (Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored more points over his career, but about a third of them came when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks) and led the team to five NBA championships. He won two Olympic gold medals as part of the U.S. men’s basketball team and scored the third most career points in NBA history.
His lowest public moment came when he was charged with raping a clerk in a Colorado hotel where he was staying in 2003. He contended their sexual encounter was consensual, and the felony sexual assault charges were dropped the following year. He issued an apology to the young woman and later settled a civil suit with her out of court.
Yet despite all the tumult, he remained the one constant in an ever-shifting lineup of Lakers who, through periodic and seemingly catastrophic collapses, rebuilt themselves into championship-caliber squads. His work ethic provided a model for younger players — even younger stars — to emulate. And he grew into a team player who, ultimately, showed humility in the face of his mounting shortcomings. He will retire as one of the greatest basketball players ever.
As every pundit in town has said, Kobe seemed to be the last to know that it was time to go. But we wouldn’t expect it any other way from someone blamed so many times for the Lakers’ troubles, only to pick himself and his team back up.