January 20, 2018

It was a well-executed play that put the Los Angeles Lakers in an ideal position. A switch isolated Kobe Bryant at the top of the key against the opposing team’s center. With ball in hand and prey in sight, Kobe attacked.

First he faked left and crossed over back to the right, but the big man recovered and cut off his path to the basket. No worries, Kobe still had his dribble. He cut right again, then stepped back, then cut left. The big man again managed to stay in front. With the shot clock winding down he stepped back one more time, and with his patented pump fake—the pump fake that made better men look foolish for so many years—tried to draw the big man into a foul. A split second later, Kobe launched from just inside the three-point line. So many times this move results in at worst a foul, and at best an And-One opportunity. But not this time. Not anymore. The big man, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, didn’t bite on the fake and waited for Kobe to launch his shot, which Jordan easily blocked.

The play happened last Wednesday night, during Kobe’s final game against the Clippers. Now the farewell tour only has a handful of games remaining before it’s all over. The electrifying, 81-point dropping, championship winning, boorish, ferociously driven, selfish, gloriously talented Kobe of old is long gone. Only old Kobe remains. But for basketball fans there is great value in that; the infamously selfish Kobe of old did something wholly unselfish this year—he gave us all a chance to share in his long good-bye.

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And Kobe has earned this long good-bye.

In early 2015 CBS’s Matt Moore (the real Matt Moore, not his devious alter-ego Hardwood Paroxysm that flays around, trolling everyone on Twitter) wrote a tremendous piece on Kobe and the cruel mistress of fortune. It was written just after Kobe tore his rotator cuff and his return or retirement was yet unknown.

Bryant’s always loved the work. That’s what he enjoys. Yet it’s plain on his face and his comments that he’s not just aware of the presence of The End, but he’s felt it. He knows what it means, he knows it’s near, and he knows it’s inescapable.

Kareem had a farewell tour. KG is going out quietly and to little fanfare, leaving the future to ambiguity like Duncan has. Kobe is having the end strapped to his body with duct tape, forced to carry its weight as he tries to trudge a few miles more.

Fortunately for us, Kobe rehabbed, recovered and returned for this one final season. Last November he announced his pending retirement and ended the speculation surrounding his future. Doing so accomplished two things: it signaled to his fans (and all basketball fans) to savor these final days; to enjoy those rare glimpses into the past when the Black Mamba launches a perfectly arched three or finds his way to the rim for a dunk. But his announcement also freed Kobe in many ways. It allowed him to savor the approaching end along with his fans. As Moore wrote in a follow-up article, “He doesn’t have to do the farewell tour like Kareem did, he already despises the love he’s been given. He needs to come out firing and reach a point where fans are cursing his name again.”

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Yes, this season saw plenty of firing (Kobe is shooting 28 percent from three) and the inevitable cursing of his name. But there has also been some joy, even love. In his final game in Denver, Kobe gave an autographed pair of his game-worn shoes to kids sitting behind him in the stands. “They earned them,” Kobe said. “The young ladies that were sitting in front of them did, too. We had a little contest going on. They wanted to know what the name of our pet dog was. I just gave them a clue. I said it’s in a Potter film. So every timeout, they’d throw out 15 names. The deal was, if they got it, I’d give them my shoes. So they got it. They got it.”

The scene has played out similarly in arenas across the country as Kobe endures a long series of lasts. Last time in the Garden, last time in Boston, last time against LeBron and on and on and on. Kobe has embraced each instance, often describing in detail what each place or player means to him. It’s been fun to watch, even for the most skeptical of fans. Kobe has earned this long good-bye.

My daughter joined an AAU team for varsity girls a few months ago that is preparing for a series of tournaments this summer. The steep rise in commitment has been an uncomfortable adjustment for her and for our entire family. Practices are held every night in three hour blocks. All players wear resistance bands on their legs during drills. They run. And run. And run some more. Her diet is regulated and sleep is mere luxury. But her commitment pales in comparison to the exponentially more intense work Kobe has put in for over 30 years.

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Seeing that up close for the first time perhaps makes me appreciate the efforts of those that make it in the NBA and understand the separation between the good and the great once there. We can all laugh at Kobe when he gets blocked by DeAndre Jordan while the bright lights are on. But we should also consider the hundreds of thousands of hours of ridiculous work put in just to get to that point. Kobe earned this long good-bye.

In the midst of a terrible season for his beloved Lakers highlighted only by the soap-opera induced antics of younger players on his team, Kobe has allowed himself to enjoy all of this. It is a joy that he has rightfully earned. The ups and downs, highs and lows, multiple championships and matching rehabs have earned Kobe the right to go out on his own terms. Kobe has earned this long good-bye.

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