Column: Kobe Bryant finally surrenders to his basketball mortality

Kobe Bryant before Sunday night's game against the Pacers at Staples Center.

Kobe Bryant before Sunday night’s game against the Pacers at Staples Center.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kobe Bryant finally saw what everyone else has seen, finally understood what everyone else had known.

His unbreakable body is broken. His eternal skills have left him. Fifteen games into his 20th year, it was clear this was going to be his final NBA season whether he accepted it or not.

On Sunday, he accepted it, the invincible Laker finally surrendering to his basketball mortality by officially announcing he would retire at the end of this season, completing a memorable journey by one of the greatest figures in the history of Los Angeles sports.


Typical of the artistic way in which Bryant has always framed his game, he made the announcement in a poem. In keeping with his transition to the business world, the poem appeared on a website in which he recently made a significant investment, the Players’ Tribune.

In a 52-line ode titled “Dear Basketball,” Bryant wrote: “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.”

The theme of the poem is that he is leaving the game he loves. The reality is that he is also leaving a game that no longer loves him. Though the 37-year-old Bryant has hinted since summer that he would choose to make this his final season, it recently became obvious that he had no choice.

The third-leading scorer in NBA history had become the worst shooter in the league. The five-time NBA champion had become a struggling fixture on one of the worst teams in the league. A former MVP and future Hall of Famer had become the object of sympathy everywhere around the league, with former players and executives openly hoping that he would retire while the memories of his greatness were still fresh.

The final wound may have occurred last week in the Lakers’ blowout defeat to the Golden State Warriors, a game in which the Warriors set an NBA record with their 16th consecutive victory to open a season. With the sports world watching, Bryant made one of 14 shots and scored four points in a 111-77 embarrassment.

Four days later, Bryant informed Coach Byron Scott of his retirement plans, and then Sunday afternoon released those plans on the website, officially beginning his farewell tour Sunday night at Staples Center in a game against the Indiana Pacers.

Each fan received a copy of Bryant’s poem upon entering the arena. But the game sadly began as a metaphor for Bryant’s season thus far. The crowd gave him a rousing standing ovation during introductions, then roared when he took his first shot.

It was 40-footer that clanked off the back of the rim, and everyone sighed. Roar, then sigh. Roar, then sigh. The cycle repeated itself seven times with seven misses, including one air ball, before Bryant finally made his first shot, a layup through two defenders with 3 minutes 35 seconds left in the first period.

Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager, was among many who figured Bryant’s announcement was coming.

“I’m not surprised,” Kupchak said. “The only surprising thing is that he made the announcement today. My understanding all along was that this was going be his last year.”

His bosses knew it. Everyone knew it. But to hear Bryant making it official was nonetheless unsettling to Southern California sports fans who have joined him on a wild two-decade ride. There have been championship parades and controversies and, ultimately, the sort of basketball greatness matched locally only by the likes of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bryant’s jersey will be going from his back into the Staples Center rafters, and his body will leave the court and be immediately bronzed for a Staples Center statue.

“I was shocked,” Coach Scott said upon hearing the news. “And then after I had a chance to kind of think about it, I was sad.”

There would have been more sadness in watching Bryant, whose $25-million-a-year deal expires after this season, attempt to earn another contract. Now, perhaps for the first time in the career of one of the greatest competitors in any sport, he can relax and enjoy the ride. Maybe, too, fans of opposing teams who have jeered him can enjoy that ride with him.

“The game will be easier for him now. I think he’ll be able to enjoy the rest of the season,” Kupchak said. “I hope he has more fun and appears less frustrated and gets more appreciation. People will now have to recognize this is his last year and they’re watching one of the all-time greats.”

An outpouring of affection from notoriously tough New York fans during the Lakers’ recent visit to Madison Square Garden felt like the beginning of the farewell tour. The first stop on the now-official tour will be Tuesday in Philadelphia, where Bryant attended high school.

The last stop will be at Staples Center on April 13 against the Utah Jazz, an otherwise meaningless game that will become one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles sports history.

In the months between those games, here’s hoping Lakers fans will stop complaining about how Bryant is stealing minutes from the team’s younger players and hindering the team’s ability to rebuild. With his retirement imminent and the Lakers’ playoff hopes already dashed, here’s hoping fans will now cheer for Bryant to play as many minutes as his body will allow, understanding that they will never see a player like him again.

Even in his struggles, there is a certain nobility to Bryant attempting to squeeze the final ounces of greatness out of a body whose game has brought so much joy to so many.

“What we want from Kobe is basically his last game to be able to walk off the court, wave to all the fans, and be able to go into the locker room standing up,” Scott said.

That long walk has now begun.

Twitter: @billplaschke


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