LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has known the answer for a while, he just wasn’t ready to admit it to himself. Let alone the world.
He wanted to try to wring one more season of good basketball out of his 37-year-old body. He wanted to try to talk himself out what his body was telling him. If he put in the work like he always had — if he lifted weights and stretched and took ice baths and watched film obsessively — he could still have a dramatic, positive impact on an NBA court.
A month into the season, Kobe admitted to himself he couldn’t will himself to do it anymore.
“Ultimately it’s a decision I had to make in life: Do I want to play again or don’t I?” Kobe asked. “It’s a very simple question, but it’s hard question to really answer. And the reality is no, I don’t. So why belabor it?”
Kobe announced that he will retire from the NBA at the end of this season.
Speaking to the media at Staples Center after another Lakers’ loss Sunday, what was clear was Kobe was comfortable with his decision. As Byron Scott had said before, Kobe was at peace with it.
“I’ve known for a while,” Bryant said. “I’ve always said if anything changes, I’ll change my mind. The problem for me, you can’t make a decision like this based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision. Finally I just had to accept it, I don’t want to go through this anymore. And I’m okay with that.”
For two decades of his NBA career — in reality, much longer than that — basketball had been Kobe’s obsession. It drove his every decision, his every action. But even that had begun to change. He regularly meditates (thanks, Phil Jackson) and it was there he started to realize what was happening.
“Sitting in meditation for me, my mind starts drifting, and it always drifted to basketball. Always. And it doesn’t do that anymore,” Kobe said. “It does that sometimes, it doesn’t do that all the time. That was the first indicator that this game was not something I can obsess over much longer.”
Not that Kobe was going to give up the game without a fight. Kobe is not going to just roll over. However, after 20 seasons, 55,000 NBA minutes, a torn Achilles and major knee injury, hard work was not enough. Obsession was no longer enough. His body was quitting on him.
He’s accepted and come to peace with that.
“I honestly feel really good about it. I really do. I’m at peace with it…” Bryant said. “I’ve worked so hard and I continue to work really hard even though I played like shit, I’ve worked really, really hard not to play like crap and I do everything I possibly can. And I feel good about that.”
Make no mistake he is playing like crap. He’s a shell of his old self on defense. After a 4-of-20 shooting performance against the Pacers Sunday night, Kobe is shooting 30.5 percent on the season. He was 2-of-15 to start the game.
But a flash of vintage Kobe is what everyone will remember from Sunday’s game — they will talk about his two late fourth quarter three pointers, one a ridiculous leaner, that helped a Lakers’ comeback and brought the team within two points of the Pacers late in the fourth. After a Paul George free throw (George had 35 on the night), Kobe got a chance for a three to tie the game. He sprinted up off a down screen, caught the ball and moved along the top of the arc, getting enough space to get off a quick shot. And he airballed it. Which speaks to where his legs are now.
Kobe still loves putting in the work, which is one reason he’s not walking away mid-season (that $25 million contract may be a factor as well). He said “there is so much beauty in the pain of this league.” He still loves the effort of trying to get better every day.
He’s just not seeing results anymore. If he were playing better, if the young Lakers like D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle were coming along more quickly, if this Lakers’ team was more respectable, then his decision might be different. But none of those things are happening.
That doesn’t mean anyone gets to talk smack to Kobe.
“We were playing Portland and some kid from the bench said something to me, said ‘we’re going to beat you tonight.’ I looked at him and said ‘I’ve got one rule: If you weren’t born when I started playing you can’t talk trash. It’s a simple rule’ And he looked and said, ‘Yes sir.’”
Coach Byron Scott and GM Mitch Kupchak have not talked about how Kobe will be used going forward after this decision, although don’t expect much of a change. This is the Kobe Bryant farewell tour now, and at home and on the road he will have adulation rained on him by the fans. They want to see Kobe be Kobe, and it’s not like he’s suddenly going to change playing styles.
Kobe appreciates and said he loves the fans, but it’s what he hears from other players — guys who have gone to him for advice such as Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, James Harden — that matters most to Bryant.
“The coolest thing is the messages I receive from the players,” he said. “They say thank you for the inspiration, thank you for the lessons, for the mentality. Those things honestly mean the most from me, that respect from the peers, there’s nothing in the world that beats that.”
It’s hard to walk away from that. To willingly step back from the only life you’ve known for two decades. Even if it’s been obvious for a little while it was time.
Bryant had to admit to himself it was time. Now he has, hopefully he can savor every moment of this season and leave it on his own terms.