When Kobe Bryant went back to where it all started, his first team in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was a message from Michael Jordan.
Just before the Los Angeles Lakers played the Hornets, Jordan, the man he replaced as the NBA’s finest player, recorded a video message. He congratulated Bryant on an “unbelievable career”, recalled “the competitive drive I saw in your eyes when we first played together” and added, somewhat ominously, that once the season ended, Bryant would have to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
This is Kobe Bryant’s 20th and last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Basketball’s most famous current player, leaving its most famous franchise, the one he has led to five national titles.
Los Angeles is the city of Hollywood and Bryant’s brilliance demands a Hollywood ending. What he is getting, however, is something akin to Sunset Boulevard. He is still a big star but the results are getting very small.
The lithe athleticism that carried Bryant through so many seasons has been worn down by injuries – a torn Achilles, a wrecked knee and an injured calf. There have been traces of the old magic, a couple of trademark slam-dunks, but at 37 his body is telling him to stop.
The Lakers have fallen apart with him at the helm this season. They sit bottom of the Western Conference behind such unheralded teams as the New Orleans Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kobe Bryant’s farewell to the Lakers carries echoes of Brian Clough’s goodbye at Nottingham Forest, but without the booze, and perhaps there will be a sense of relief when it is all done. Perhaps the man who justifies his single-mindedness with the phrase “friends hang sometimes, banners hang for ever” might enjoy stopping?
“I am used to my body being sore,” he tells The Independent in Los Angeles. “And once the season ends there will be an adjustment period when your body isn’t sore and you don’t have something to focus on. I am one of the people who enjoy my work but there are times when the summer comes and you are not in the frame of mind for basketball and you realise how relaxing that life can be.
“I don’t think I will leave anything behind, apart from the reputation of my 20-year career,” Bryant adds. “I will leave behind the shell of who I have been for the last 20 years but what carries on is the spirit to understand how to deal with failure, handle success and communicate. These are the things that I will carry with me for ever.”
Bryant is unlikely to go hungry and like Michael Jordan and David Beckham, he may end up earning more away from the game than he ever did while playing it. He speaks Italian and Spanish and is one of those few sportsmen known by just their first names. Kobe is an advertiser’s dream. His final match is on 13 April at home to Utah Jazz, a match that on current standings would pitch the team in seventh versus the side at the bottom of the Conference. On Stub Hub someone is offering a pair of courtside seats for $1m (refreshments not included). This being Los Angeles, someone will pay.
His first contract with Adidas, signed when he had just joined the Lakers as a teenager, was worth $48m and for his next contract he switched to Nike for a similar amount. There was a blip when he was falsely accused of rape – the charges were dropped – but products from Aston Martin cars to mobile phones have all reached for the Bryant endorsement, particularly in the Far East.
He may have been named after a rare Japanese beef produced from beer-fed cattle that is a particular favourite of Arsène Wenger’s, but it is China where the Kobe Bryant brand is biggest. He has been mobbed on tours to Shanghai and Guangzhou and it would have been very easy to agree to one last, lucrative contract to play a gentler kind of basketball in the Far East in front of adoring, uncritical crowds.
“I have played overseas but it is not going to happen now because the body won’t let me,” he says. “The one positive thing I’d say about the injuries is they have given me time to think about other avenues.”
On Sunday, in Toronto, he will play his 18th and final All-Star game. It was not something he expected or sought. He had joked that the 17th must have been “a lifetime achievement award” and had said that he would be fine if he were not selected. But Bryant is box office. So selected he was.
He will not, however, be selected for basketball’s big summer event; a third Olympic gold medal is not on his radar. Magic Johnson ended his career as part of the United States Dream Team that swept all before it at the Barcelona Olympics and it would have been fitting if Bryant’s career climaxed in Rio de Janeiro. A couple of weeks ago the Golden State Warriors’ Brazilian point-guard, Leandro Barbosa, went up to him and said: “See you in Rio”. Bryant simply replied “Nah”. It was, he explained, time for the younger guys.
Growing up in Italy, where his father played basketball in the ancient market town of Rieti, not far from Rome, gave him a love not just of football but of pure attacking basketball at a time when bulk and athleticism seemed to be everything – it was the reason the aforementioned Charlotte Hornets, for reasons that they will probably never be able to justify, let him go.
“Instead,” he said when describing his upbringing, “I was taught extreme fundamentals – footwork, footwork, footwork. How to create space, how to handle the ball, how to shoot the ball. I wasn’t the strongest kid, I wasn’t the fastest and I wasn’t the most athletic but I was probably the most skilful.”
Leaving the Lakers will give them financial breathing space because more than a third of their player-budget goes on paying Bryant’s $25m salary. The knock-on effect is obvious and the Los Angeles Lakers, the side of Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, are no longer the biggest team in Los Angeles, let alone California. A lack of investment has also seen them slip in terms of player salaries as their budget of $71m puts them behind the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Asked what they will do once he has gone, Bryant says: “We have to make smart decisions, build the team up, get talent, get good trades and make some smart choices. I will be around to be a mentor. I have done that for a while and it will continue.
“The Lakers will always stand for excellence, championships and the belief that winning is the most important thing. There was Magic Johnson before me and there will be people after me and, though there needs to be rebuilding, the core of the organisation will always be the same.”Reuse content