If nothing else, few players have dictated the terms of their own career the way Kobe Bryant did. From who his teammates were, to what the amount was on his paycheck, Kobe Bryant has remained loyal to Kobe Bryant. In the wake of Bryant scoring sixty in his last game, and seeing his twenty-year career come to an end, it almost seems wrong to talk about his career in the past tense, but here we are.
In his final on-court performance, Kobe Bryant put his name in the record books one more time, just for good measure. Due to the circumstances – the Lakers long out of playoff contention, age, emotion – there was probably less pressure on Kobe Bryant last night than any game he’s ever played in. Staying true to himself, however, Bryant found a way to put pressure on himself. What he did, few saw coming, if anybody at all. At the beginning of the season, there were questions whether or not Bryant would make it to the end of the season. Before the game against the Jazz, Bryant said the plan was to play thirty-two minutes, Lakers’ coach Byron Scott echoed that, and said he had him penciled in for thirty-six minutes. Bryant played forty-two, and scored sixty. And all the sudden, here we are, talking about how in his swansong performance, Kobe Bryant scores sixty, and closes the last chapter of a fascinating and historically great career.
Perhaps the most symbolic part of Bryant’s last game came before the game even started. As Magic Johnson came out to pay tribute, the Lakers played a moving video featuring former teammates, coaches, and rivals, all intertwined with snapshots of the most memorable moments of Bryant’s career. As the praise poured down, Kobe sat by himself on the bench, only taking short glances at the montage of his career that is now in the hands of basketball history. It was as if watching all the things he has accomplished was like looking at the sun, a glaring distraction to what truly mattered to Bryant, the game at hand. Then, with the eyes of the NBA world on him (at least the eyes outside of Oracle Arena), he got up, gave a wave to the crowd, embraced Magic Johnson, then stretched and started his pre-game routine, almost immune to the emotion of the situation. It was a little sad to watch an all-time great be so focused, unemotional, and incapable of fully taking in the moment during a time of reflection, but at the same time, it was so perfectly Kobe Bryant.
Bryant’s career is full of polarizing aspects. Some people say he’s the greatest Lakers’ player of all-time and one of the five (or so) best players ever. Others say there’s four or five players who have worn the purple and gold that were better, and Kobe belongs somewhere in the back half of the top-twenty players in NBA history. Some point to Kobe Bryant and think he’s one of the greatest leaders in history, on or off the basketball court; the more cynical think his manner of leading bordered on a dictatorship. The scoring numbers are jaw-dropping, Bryant exits the game third on the all-time scoring list with 33,464 points, but the efficiency to which those numbers achieved land somewhere between ordinary and very good (but not other-worldly, as so many other aspects of Bryant’s career are), especially towards the back end of Bryant’s career. He won five championships, but also led a team that missed the playoffs while he was still in his prime. Kobe Bryant’s career can be framed in so many ways that to try and do so in any singular way would be to miss the point entirely.
The way early-Kobe Bryant so adamantly (and perfectly) went out and played as if we was playing the part of Michael Jordan 2.0 set the tone for his entire career. The way the summoned the in-his-prime Kobe Bryant for his last game put the perfect capstone on his career. Everything in between was a mix of controversy, contradiction, and unfiltered greatness and do-it-my-way strong-headedness that, when taken in as a collective work, is stunning. In a weird way, it seems ironic that by doing a Michael Jordan impersonation for much of his career, Bryant leaves the game with one of the most unique careers in the history of sports. Few greats saw the number of highs Kobe Bryant did, even fewer saw the lows. As his last game shows, though, Kobe Bryant always bounced back from a low to hit a high, because basketball, and the competition of sport, provided Kobe Bryant with the ultimate high.
Basketball fans now must wonder if Kobe Bryant leaving professional basketball means an end not just to Bryant’s career, but more generally, an era of play where the ends always justify the means. Today’s basketball world is so caught up in efficiency, spacing, and all things analytic that the likes of Kobe Bryant – where the only thing that matters was the final score, no matter how one got there – is a type of player the modern game doesn’t have much use for. With that, Kobe Bryant might just be taking a style of basketball with him as he leaves the game. That’s probably exactly the way he wants it: Without Kobe Bryant, the game will never be the same.