DEAR KOBE BRYANT,
I often find myself wondering about the mindset of NBA greats as they enter the twilight of their careers. When the mileage on their legs starts to kick in, how do they handle it? To be more specific, how do you handle it, Kobe? As you inch closer and closer to walking away from the game, how are you—the fiercest competitor that’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers this side of Michael Jordan—taking all of this?
It’s hard to imagine that you’re actually playing in your 20th season. Only four other players have done that—Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Robert Parish, Kevin Willis, and Kevin Garnett—all of whom were big men. You aren’t. You’re a shooting guard—the best of a generation—who has been running all over the court for the better part of 1,500 games, playoffs included. That’s the equivalent of never missing a game for over 18 seasons while logging in an average of 37 minutes per outing.
I’m no math wizard, but that’s a grand total of somewhere around 55,550 minutes of NBA game time. Basically, Kobe, if we asked you to play NBA-level basketball right now and stop only when you reach 55,550 minutes, you’d be playing for 39 straight days…at full NBA speed.
Hard as that is to comprehend, the sight of you barely resembling the superstar you were has been harder, especially for the devoted fans who have stuck by you throughout your career. This isn’t how NBA greats are supposed to go, even though we’ve witnessed countless times how pride and ego can somehow taint even the most decorated of careers.
It happened to Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, and a host of others. Even Jordan, the undisputed GOAT, would probably want those two, ill-fated years in Washington back. The only two Hall of Famers in recent memory to walk out on their own terms were Reggie Miller (standing ovation) and David Robinson (NBA champion).
Kobe, you’re in that stage now where all those greats were, grasping at a game that’s now out of his reach.
We saw those two air balls you threw against Denver. We saw you shoot brick after brick against Dallas. We even saw you air-ball a layup against New York. (A layup!) Even for the guys who have rooted against you for most of you career, seeing how time has diminished your mastery of the game is a bitter feeling. It’s a reminder that the sun will descend on everyone, on us, no matter how great you might be.
At this point, it’s hard to see you make it to a 21st season. The way you’re going, it’d be a surprise to see you make it through this season. It’s a realization that all basketball fans are coming to grips with, one air ball at a time.
Let the haters hate, but only a true hoops fan can admit that it’s hard to see you play the way you’ve been playing. You’ll go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game but must it really go down this way?
Must we see your game unravel before our eyes?
But perhaps that’s what you want Kobe—to go down with guns a-blazing as a gunslinger should. Perhaps that’s your definition of “going out on your own terms.”
Perhaps, there’s also no ending more fitting for a basketball player who’s played his entire career in glitzy Los Angeles, a place where stories of heroes riding off into the sunset are made. Except you don’t want to ride off into the sunset; you want to keep shooting until your final bullet, until you’ve been shot dead by all comers.
When that day comes, rest assured, that will be a day we will never forget—just as we will never forget the sterling standards of competition you’ve brought to the game of basketball.
A True Basketball Fan