It started with a simple sentence a couple of decades ago.
“I… have decided to skip college and take my talents to the NBA.”
From there — and after some relatively humble beginnings coming off the bench and missing key shots in the playoffs — Kobe Bryant would go on to be one of the legends of the NBA.
A legendary career that ends Wednesday night at Staples Center.
He’s the only NBA player to have a 20-year career with one team. Kobe’s raw statistics are otherworldly: Five championships, two Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP, third on the all-time career scoring list, 15 All-NBA teams, 18-time All-Star, four-time scoring champion, and the list goes on and on.
However, those stats do not define Kobe — we will remember him more as one of the game’s ultimate competitors, a guy as driven as anyone who has ever laced up shoes and walked onto a court. He talked about that and his legacy over the course of this final season, something we captured at PBT.
Kobe talked about a lot of things this season, but it all started with chasing his dream — and inspiring a generation of players to do the same.
“It’s easier said than done because I think we all have dreams,” Kobe said. “But once you go through the process of trying to make those dreams a reality, you hit obstacles. And I think unfortunately because of pressure or anxiety or responsibilities, things, whatever, you kind of give up on those dreams and somewhere along the line you lose that imagination. I think it’s important that you never lose that. You have to keep that. That’s the most important thing. I never gave up my dream.”
And he inspired others not to give up their dreams.
“The coolest thing is the messages I receive from the players,” said of his farewell tour this season. “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.”
For a guy with such an intense, burning competitiveness, he was amazingly at peace with his decision to walk away from the game after this season. He had realized it was time, and knew he didn’t want to be traded and don another jersey to make a run at a sixth ring as a third or fourth option. He wanted to be a Laker for life. There will be no comeback as a player — in the NBA or Europe — and no stint as a coach.
Kobe battled back this season so that he could walk off the court one final time and do it on his terms. Injuries were not going to be the last word on his story. Wednesday night at Staples Center against Utah, Kobe will get the moment he wanted, walking off the court when he wanted to leave. And he’s at peace with what’s next.
“I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all.”
From when he entered the league, Kobe understood what it took to become a great player. He was driven, but he also studied film on the greats, he reached out to them and learned from them. He challenged those around him and pushed them to challenge him.
When Kobe saw in others what he knew was in himself, he instantly respected it.
“Dirk and I have always had a great relationship because we’re both extremely competitive. Also both extremely loyal to our teams,” Bryant said the last time he faced Dirk Nowitzki at Staples Center.
“I’ll tell you a story about Dirk. He was up for free agency, and I knew what his response was going to be. But out of respect, everybody’s looking around at all these free agents, I felt I’d shoot you a text, if you want to come to L.A. He goes, I would love to play with you, but Dallas is my home. This is my team. I’m not leaving here. So he and I think a lot alike in that regard.”
Kobe’s game evolved over the course of his career, from the high-flying No. 8 playing next to Shaquille O’Neal, the kid who won a dunk contest and used his athleticism to get buckets, to the fundamentally impeccable, high-IQ No. 24 that could read the play and be a step ahead of everyone else on the court. He was pushed hard by the other greats in the game along that path.
“(The Spurs) pushed me to really fine tune and sharpen my game. I’m sad those matchups aren’t going to happen (anymore).”
So what does Kobe see as his career defining moment?
The 2010 NBA Finals against Boston.
“It was really big,” Kobe said. “We were part of the history of rivalry — and there was no way we could go down in history as being remembered as the team that lost twice to the Celtics (Boston had beaten Kobe’s Lakers in 2008). All the history that’s gone on (between these franchises) and there’s no way, no way.
“So even above and beyond winning a fifth championship, it was disappointing the memory of this organization and the rivalry that’s been there for decades. That was more important…. You know it was still a very beautiful thing to be a part of it. But the pressure, and understanding what this Finals meant, especially 2010 because you can’t lose twice to these guys. I don’t care how many Hall of Famers they have, it just can’t happen. There’s no excuse.”
Through the arc of his career Kobe evolved into the unquestioned leader, not just of the Lakers but one of the veteran voices in the NBA other players looked up to. He had help with that from other legends of the game.
“(Bill Russell) has been an unbelievable mentor.,” Kobe said. “Especially from the standpoint of leadership and understanding group/team dynamics. Some of the experiences he’s been through, and how he’s been able to manage some of the teams he’s been on, and some of the difficulties he might have faced. He’s been an invaluable ear and voice for me.”
Like his game, Kobe’s leadership style evolved.
“(A leadership voice) just comes with time and it comes with age. When you first come into the league you’re trying to figure out what’s what — what is the right thing to say, what is the wrong thing to say. Trying to avoid conflict and controversy. Then as you age you realize that no matter what you say there’s always going to be conflict, there’s always going to be controversy so the best thing to do is just be yourself. Then if there’s going to be conflict or controversy created it’s going to be created from the person that you truly are.”
Father Time wins every race against man, and he won against Kobe. Eventually.
But Bryant was not going to take the hint of torn Achilles or knee surgeries to leave the game, he was going to overcome those and walk off the court. It wasn’t the physical that made Kobe realize it was time to walk away — “you can always figure the physical out” — it was the mental side.
“Sitting in meditation for me, my mind starts drifting, and it always drifted to basketball. Always. And it doesn’t do that anymore. 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.”
Kobe isn’t leaving the game as one of those curmudgeonly old “get off my lawn” guys, he’s not a player with disdain for the younger generation.
“When we first came in, it’s always the younger generation that comes in and it’s just like the elder statesmen says this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing. They’re going to absolutely kill the game. The game, when we played, was pure and all this kind of stuff. Hey, man, that’s always the case. When we came in, we were just young kids that wanted to play, and (Allen Iverson) was aggressive. It was a newer generation, newer culture, but I think where the game ended up, it ended up in a beautiful place.”
That did not mean Kobe would go quietly. In flashes this season he put up points and showed his old swagger — he was demanding respect one last time.
“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.’”
So what happens the first day of retirement?
“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep.”
Kobe doesn’t seem to get the point of coffee. And even in retirement, whatever is next, it’s hard to imagine Kobe going back to sleep rather than jumping into what’s next with both feet — and an unparalleled determination.