The last meaningful basketball game Kobe Bryant played in Toronto was nearly three years ago when the Los Angeles Lakers star was 34 years old and still near the top of his game.
It wasn’t one of his better nights. He shot a miserable 12-of-32 as the struggling Lakers lost again. Afterwards he tweeted a picture of brick wall, a tongue-in-cheek nod to his marksmanship.
As my friend Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail put it: “Kobe even hogs the blame.”
But back then Kobe was still Kobe, at least in a statistical sense.
In 2012-13 he was in the midst of his last individually great season, when his force of will could still summon a remarkable, generational level of skill. But that season ended with him tearing his Achilles tendon, beginning the slow, injury-riddled unraveling of one of biggest stars the NBA has ever known.
On Sunday night Bryant formalized what the rest of the world had seen coming ever since. In an open letter to basketball published in the Players’ Tribune, Bryant confirmed that his 20th NBA season would be his last.
“This season is all I have left to give,” he wrote. “ My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye. And that’s OK.
“I’m ready to let you go.”
But not yet.
Bryant’s final season has been an aesthetic disaster, his play a big a reason as any that the Lakers are 2-14 on the season.
If Bryant had announced that he was leaving basketball immediately there would have been a sigh of relief. But that’s not in the cards.
Bryant plans to play out the rest of the season even if it means more 4-of-20 shooting nights like he had Sunday. There is the final months of his $24-million contract to fulfill and footage to gather for the documentary crew he hired to follow him.
Announcing his retirement at least relieves Bryant of being scrutinized for his performance this season. Retiring now would have guaranteed it, but that would be too easy.
He’ll be in Toronto for his last visit on Dec. 7. If he manages to shoot 12-of-32 it will be one of his better games this year.
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He remains the Kobe player most remember only in theory, the last remaining tie to his long peak is his apparently unrelenting stubbornness when it comes to imposing himself on every game he plays, for better or for worse.
Bryant’s been blowing tires and busting hoses for the past three years. He finished 2012-13 with a torn Achilles tendon, the next season ended after six games with a fractured knee and in 2014-15 it was torn rotator cuff that limited him to 35 games.
This season he’s healthy, but horrible.
“I suck,” was his honest self-assessment, a few weeks ago. He’s not improved in the interim.
He ranks last in almost all meaningful statistical categories for players with enough minutes to qualify. On the same night he announced this would be his last season there was a Vine circulating on Twitter of Bryant trying to give chase on a one-man fast break. He had a head start and the angle, but couldn’t come close. He slows to a rec-league jog once he realizes the task was hopeless.
It’s not a good way to go out.
That he’s chosen to continue to press on even though it’s clear that at 37 years old and three years removed from even base camp of his peak speaks to one of the qualities of Bryant that’s made him a polarizing figure: A stubborn arrogance that allows him to believe the next shot is going in and he’s the best person to take it, in any circumstance.
There are almost no meaningful examples of an athlete retiring on top. Learning that they are mortal is a necessary step to admitting to themselves that they can’t play forever.
But no athlete in recent memory seems so determined to prove it.
In a miserable season on a miserable Lakers team, Bryant, one of the most shot-happy players in NBA history, is actually shooting more shots per game than his career average, per 36 minutes. He’s averaging eight three-point attempts per 36 minutes, or more than double his career average of 3.9, even though he’s shooting 19.5 per cent from deep.
It’s strange to watch.
And while Bryant’s legacy is secured by his championships, scoring titles and 15-year run among the game’s elite, his stubborn final act is more fuel for those who would argue that Bryant has never quite seen the forest for the trees, that he’s confused his willingness to dominate a game with the will to win it.
No one doubts Kareem’s status in the game or Jordan’s or Magic’s. Kobe? It’s more confusing.
His fans would believe he deserves a place on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, or at least on the short list and his longevity means that he’s accumulated a mountain of statistics, he’ll retire as the No. 3 scorer in NBA history and he’s won five NBA championships.
But he never shot 50 per cent from the field in 20 seasons, he only won a single MVP award and he ranks 48th in NBA history in win-shares per 48 minutes, 15th among active players.
Bryant was stubborn enough to clash with Shaquille O’Neal, another flawed great. Had either of them found a way to make that partnership endure they could have 10 rings, each.
The legacy of the last few years of his career will, in part, be of him emerging as the game’s grumpy old man, a teammate so uncompromising that he chased off anyone he deemed unworthy, which was almost everyone.
There is no question that Bryant is an automatic hall-of-famer and almost certainly one of the top 50 players in NBA history. From his aged 22 to aged 34 seasons he averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, but it’s fair to question if he’s really as dominant a figure in the sport many would believe.
Without a fraction of the fanfare, Tim Duncan has put together a career superior in nearly every respect to Bryant’s, less the overwhelming urge to remain at the centre of the San Antonio Spurs universe.
Duncan’s reward for doing more with less and playing team-first basketball above all has been a career spent playing at a 58-win pace and five championships in three different decades with a sixth very much in sight.
The Spurs have inspired a new-look NBA where ball movement reigns supreme, rendering the days of one-on-one isolation play that is Bryant’s signature almost obsolete. The Golden State Warriors are emerging as one of the NBA’s all-time great teams by pushing the Spurs’ approach to its limit.
Bryant keeps chucking to the end, keeps believing the game exists as a stage for him and his teammates merely his supporting cast.
In that sense it’s the right time for Bryant to exit. The game has passed him by.