(Photo: Lolita Beckham)
During the final months of Derek Jeter’s career last season, all sports followers showed their appreciation for what he meant to baseball. Teams bestowed gifts on the Yankees captain as he trekked on his retirement tour and opposing fans gave him rousing ovations at each stop, even in Fenway Park. Now fans get to show Kobe Bryant their affection as the lifelong Laker embarks on his 20th and almost certainly last season, however, the 37-year old guard does not want a Jeter-style farewell tour.
“I’m uncomfortable with it in all honesty,” Bryant admitted after hearing chants of “Let’s Go Lakers!” and “Ko-be!” echoing through the arena in Brooklyn on Friday night. “I really just appreciate the game the way it’s been played over the years and I appreciate the competition, so it’s like, the biggest sign of respect to me would be to approach it just like it was any other game and try to kick our butt just like it was any other game. Those are the things that I hold extremely dear.”
Part of the reason Bryant doesn’t want a traditional farewell tour is that he hates the idea of ceremonies draining the competitive fire out of him. He has always preferred to play the villain – the Black Mamba, but now he has to get used to receiving more cheers than boos on the road. Questions have been rampant for some time whether this NBA year will be his last. Bryant has suggested that he’s leaning in that direction, but how will he know when it’s time?
“That’s always the question, isn’t it?” Bryant told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. “You don’t know. You don’t know. I mean, everybody’s standard answer is ‘When you know, you know.’ That’s what everybody says. It’s not very helpful. But that’s what everybody says. So we’ll see if I’m giving the same answer or not.”
This is the last year of Bryant’s contract, and the league’s highest-paid player will be an unrestricted free agent next summer – should he choose to continue his career. But over the weekend, Bryant put to rest any talk of him leaving the Lakers to rejoin former coach Phil Jackson and former teammate Derek Fisher at Madison Square Garden next season.
“How many times do I need to say it? God. I’ve said it so many times … I’m here. I’m a Laker for life,” Bryant said after a 104–98 win over the hapless Nets. “I’m not playing anywhere else, no matter what. It’s not going to happen. I bleed purple and gold, and that’s just how it’s going to be.”
The third-leading scorer in NBA history has already logged more than 55,000 minutes on his odometer when you count the playoffs and he has endured three serious injuries in the last two-and-a-half years. He isn’t going to hang around just to beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record — something he is extremely unlikely to do – Bryant is at 32,581 points, 5,806 behind Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387.
Bryant has told Lakers Coach Byron Scott that he wants to play in all 82 games – another sign that this is indeed his last hurrah. Michael Jordan played all 82 games for the Wizards in his final NBA season at age 39, something Bryant is surely aware of. But he sat out 123 of a possible 164 games the last two seasons because of injuries. Staying healthy and going out on his own terms would a perfect way to ride into the sunset, but he already knows what he wants to be remembered as.
“As a talented overachiever,” said Bryant. “I really worked my butt off every single day to make sure I left no stone unturned and try to push it as much as I possibly could.”
Bryant has accomplished almost everything in the sport. He has won five championships, two Olympic Gold Medals and the 2008 MVP award. He is a 17-time All Star, 11-time All-NBA First Team selection and 9-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection. He led the league in scoring twice, he ranks third on the all-time postseason scoring lists and he set a record on opening night for the most seasons with the same team, surpassing John Stockton’s 19-year run in Utah.
Twenty years is forever in the NBA, and now opposing arenas, beginning in Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden over the weekend, understand the likes of him will never come again. Bryant admitted that he’s not the most sentimental of people, but he did acknowledge that Sunday’s game at MSG had some extra meaning.
“I always try to take a look around, always try to kind of embrace the moment and kind of feel the energy a little,” Bryant said. “I always try to make it a point to do that. Is it a little different this time around? Yeah.”
There have been only four other guys who have ever made it to a 20th season in the NBA: Kareem, Robert Parish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett last season. All those guys were 6’10 and above, who could still function at least as defenders, or rebounders that don’t have to require a lot of athleticism. The best of that group in that twentieth season was Kareem averaging a mere 10 points per game. While Kobe is in uncharted waters for a guard, he is also on pace to do something else not done in quite some time.
Per, BasketballReference.com, it’s been 64 years since a player averaged more than 15 FG attempts per game while shooting below 35% from the floor over the course of a full NBA season. Kobe is currently averaging 16.2 FG attempts per game and shooting a measly 32% from the field. His 6-of-19 shooting performance at MSG on Sunday afternoon followed nights of 5-of-16, 4-of-11, 3-of-15, 5-of-12, and 8-of-24.
Watching Kobe so far this season feels eerily similar to what it was like to watch 2014 Derek Jeter — just without the guitar, cowboy boots and kayak. But as Kobe enters what almost surely will be the final lap of his NBA career, he gets to do his life his way. This is his world, and we all have had the pleasure of living in it for one basketball season after another through two decades of unparalleled excellence, during which he became the unquestioned face of the Lakers franchise and Jordan’s spiritual ancestor. And like Jordan, Bryant just wants opponents to compete with, not commend, him.
“I remember playing Michael [Jordan] in his last All-Star game in Atlanta and he and I were catching up in the locker room,” Bryant recalled. “This was his last game, so he says to me, ‘I just want you to approach it like it’s any other game. I want you to compete against me just like it’s any other game.’
“I remember, I said, ‘Michael, what the hell about me led you to think that I was going to approach this any differently?’ But I think that’s the greatest sign of respect. I feel the same way where I sit now, that it’s about the competition, which shows the greatest sign of respect.”