On Wednesday night, it’ll all come to an end.
Kobe Bryant will play in his final NBA game, at Staples Center against the Utah Jazz, and deep down, let’s be honest, fans of the Los Angeles Lakers know this day can’t come soon enough.
You read that right.
For every basketball fan, Kobe’s retirement will be a big loss. For the most part, fans understand the significance of Kobe’s impact to the game of basketball, as evidenced by standing ovations Bryant received in places where he’s been heavily booed throughout his career, including Boston, San Antonio, Denver and Sacramento.
Astute basketball fans understand that the five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist whose competitive drive was unmatched, was someone special.
But while there won’t be a dry eye at Staples Center when the clock hits zero and Kobe waves his final goodbyes, Bryant’s retirement will be the best thing to happen to the Lakers franchise since the organization’s last title in 2010.
Don’t get me wrong. As a Los Angeleno who grew up as an ardent Lakers supporter, I will miss Kobe more than anyone. But the thing is, I’ve already gotten used to life without the real Kobe.
That’s because the real Kobe I grew up watching retired on April 12, 2013, with 3:08 to go in the fourth quarter during a pivotal home game against the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers were fighting for a playoff spot in the final stretch of the 2012-13 season and Kobe was literally doing everything in his power to make sure the team qualified. Bryant played at least 47 minutes in four of the six games leading up to that mid-April Warriors showdown. In the previous game against Portland, he played all 48 minutes. He was averaging 38 minutes per game that season (he hasn’t played more than 37 minutes in a game this season).
With the Lakers trailing by three points late in the fourth quarter, Bryant nailed a vintage clutch 3-pointer to even up the score. But all of that playing time eventually caught up with the Mamba. On the very next possession, he tore his Achilles’ tendon. The Lakers went on to make the playoffs, but Kobe missed the rest of the season.
He hasn’t been the same player since that night.
After playing in just six games in 2013-14 because of injuries, the Lakers foolishly decided to invest against Father Time by signing a brittle and aging Kobe to a monstrous $50 million contract extension. That investment has been the Lakers’ stock market crash — a destructive wrecking ball that will keep the team in the abyss for years to come.
Not only had the Mamba long lost his venom, but the team no longer is competitive in free agency because his contract hamstrung the team in a stringent salary cap era. As a result, the team has found itself chasing ping-pong balls instead of championships — a concept only familiar with L.A.’s other team.
The last two seasons have been downright uncomfortable, and it’s mainly because of the organization’s stubbornness in believing Kobe could’ve returned to his former self without a hitch.
Kobe’s retirement is the Lakers’ tabula rasa.
The team can start with a clean slate next season and finally put their main focus on rebuilding around players such as D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and whoever they potentially end up drafting this year.
But at the end of the day, this is Bryant’s last game in the NBA. Even if he is a fraction of what he used to be, maybe for one last time he can take a sip from the fountain of youth.
No, we’re not asking for 81 points. Though it won’t be a surprise if we see him put up 81 shots. But maybe 40 points and a win, or an explosive dunk — perhaps even a buzzer-beater.
Anything that’ll help paint the lasting legacy of the Mamba’s tumultuous final years in a brighter light.
Thumbnail photo via Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports Images