The journey Kobe Bryant has been on for 20 years as one of the best ever to play in the NBA will reach its conclusion Wednesday night at Staples Center.
The 37-year-old Bryant’s greatest moments are behind him, and his last game against the Utah Jazz is more of him getting to the finish line with a Lakers team that has produced their worst record in franchise history.
So many of the game’s icons have limped to the end of what have been outstanding careers, their skills diminished by injuries and with no more glory to display in their final games.
“It’s not a lot of fun when you can’t play anymore,” said TNT studio analyst Charles Barkley. “You’ve been better than anybody else your whole life and you’re retiring for a reason — because you can’t play anymore. It’s kind of like a relief more than anything. I’m sure Kobe knows this.”
Barkley finished his Hall of Fame career playing for the lottery-bound Houston Rockets. He missed four months of the 1999-2000 season because of a left quadriceps injury, but his goal was just to play in one final game.
So on April 19, 2000, Barkley, who was 37 at the time, played his last game of a 16-year NBA career against the Vancouver Grizzlies.
He scored just two points on a put-back. Barkley had one rebound and one assist in six minutes. He walked off the court to a standing ovation.
“I had gotten hurt earlier in the season, and I wanted to try to play one [more] game,” Barkley recalled. “It took me like six minutes to get one rebound and one basket. That was tough. And if you’ve been watching Kobe play, you know he’s feeling the exact same thing.”
Many other NBA Hall of Famers exited with quiet performances in their farewell games.
Abdul-Jabbar averaged 10.1 points in 22.9 minutes per game during the 1988-89 regular season, his skills obviously not what they were when he won six most valuable player awards.
The Lakers were swept, 4-0, by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals.
In his final game, the 42-year-old Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points), made only two of eight shots from the field and finished with seven points and three rebounds in 29 minutes against Detroit.
Magic Johnson was in his prime when he retired at the start of the 1991-92 season after he announced he was HIV-positive.
But Johnson still had the itch to play, and at 36 he returned to the Lakers midway through the 1995-96 season. Johnson played in 32 regular season games, averaging 14.9 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.
The final game of his illustrious 13-year career was on May 2, 1996, when the Lakers were eliminated in a second-round playoff series by Houston.
Johnson missed six of eight shots, had eight points, five assists, five rebounds and four turnovers in 30 minutes off the bench.
Even the great Michael Jordan couldn’t deliver the magic moments the basketball world had come to enjoy in his final NBA game.
Jordan was then playing for the lottery-bound Washington Wizards — and he was nowhere near the player who had led the Chicago Bulls to six championships and had won six MVP awards.
In the final game of his career on April 16, 2003, the 40-year-old Jordan had 15 points, four rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes for the Wizards.
Larry Bird won three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics and was a three-time MVP, but serious back problems caused him to miss 37 regular season games in 1991-92. He retired after the season, though he suited up for the Olympic “Dream Team” that won a gold medal that summer.
Bird’s final NBA game was a Game 7 loss in Cleveland in a second-round playoff series. He was obviously hurting and took only nine shots in 33 minutes and finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Injuries finally took down Shaquille O’Neal, his 7-1 body unable to overcome all that ailed him in his final season in Boston.
O’Neal had been a four-time NBA champion — three of those championships with the Lakers — but he had to deal with a strained right calf and a hip and Achilles’ tendon injury during the 2010-11 season with the Celtics.
The 39-year-old didn’t score in his final NBA game, a second-round playoff loss against the Miami Heat. O’Neal had zero rebounds and two fouls and played just three minutes, 31 seconds before walking off the court and into retirement.