When Kobe Bryant entered the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers wore uniforms accented in black and electric blue. The seats at The Q were blue. There was no fire-breathing jumbotron. He was guarded by the likes of Chris Mills and the late Bobby Phills, and later it was Wesley Person getting crossed up, leaving poor Cedric Henderson to go flying by, biting on a pump fake in attempt to play help-side defense. Sasha Pavlovic tried. So did Anthony Parker. You could say Alonzo Gee did as well.
Being friendly with few and competitive with all, Bryant speaks of himself as if he was a bridge between two incredible generations within the NBA. He willingly admits to having a character flaw that forbids him from endearing himself to peers—”I just wanted to win the damn thing,” he says. He blames the AAU circuit for today’s warmer, competitive yet friendly environment where elite basketball players know each other from their early teens through various levels of play, becoming closer both on and off of the court. Though he’s still one of the brightest stars in today’s game, Bryant tosses out, rhetorically, a hypothetical of Larry Bird’s team from French Lick, Indiana, playing alongside Magic Johnson’s squad from Lansing, Michigan, before shooting it down like a clay pigeon.
With the 1997 All-Star Weekend, hosted at then Gund Arena, fans remember a young, me-against-the-world Bryant looking to make his mark on the league. A star entering—and winning—the slam dunk contest during a time when stars still competed. They may remember him competing in the Rookie Challenge, dropping a game-high 31 points on just 17 shots, playing alongside teammates Travis Knight and Derek Fisher. Bryant, however, remembers the feelings he experienced when walking through the halls of the arena and into the Western Conference locker room, sharing that space with Gary Payton, and John Stockton—complete with short shorts. He recalls being surrounded by legends of the game as they littered the halls of The Gund in advance of the league-wide celebration of the 50 best players to ever play the game. Though just 18 years of age at the time, not long removed from telling Michael Jordan he felt he could beat the legend in a game of one-on-one, Bryant immediately assimilated himself more with the Mt. Rushmore around him than the would-be chachkies that were his age-based peers.
If you ask Bryant to pick out a specific memory from his times in Cleveland—which were not many despite a 20-year career—February 8, 2009, jumps out. With the losing of the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics fresh in his mind, Bryant and the Lakers were on a season-long run at redemption and were running into a LeBron James-led Cavaliers squad that had yet to lose a game at home. Winning streaks meant little to Bryant, who gladly played a substantial role in breaking the Celtics’ 19-game winning streak just a few weeks earlier in front of a Christmas Day audience. And here was Bryant, flu-ridden, vomiting in the locker room, needing an IV at halftime, refusing to give way. With the Cavs cutting a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to four with just three minutes remaining and the Quicken Loans Arena crowd ready to explode, it was Bryant who drained a fade away jumper that felt like it hung in the air for minutes before it came crashing through the net.
Bryant neglects to bring up a game in that same arena against that same team just two years later. Then a two-time defending NBA champion, Bryant left Quicken Loans Arena without saying a word to any media members, likely out of fear of potentially saying something he would regret either in pride or in his wallet. Coming off of a 20-point drubbing at the hands of the then Charlotte Bobcats, one that left the shooting guard admittedly frustrated, Bryant needed 25 shots to score 17 points and the rest of his teammates (save for Pau Gasol) played as if the All-Star break had already begun. It is, after all, one thing to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers; it’s another to lose to a Cavaliers team without LeBron James that played Christian Eyenga and Jamario Moon for a combined 48 minutes.
If there’s any indication of Bryant’s subconscious wrestling with his competitive streak, it’s when he discusses other veterans as if they’re still young. When asked about James, Bryant asks “What is this, his 10th year in the league?” When reminded that it’s actually James’ 13th, his eyes widen. “Jesus Christ. Thirteen?” he says. Though just a few years older than Cleveland’s No. 23, Bryant speaks of James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as if they were drafted in the same class as James’ teammate Kyrie Irving who was selected with the first pick seven years later—”I was much older [in 2003] in NBA years,” he says. “To me, LeBron is still young.”—while simultaneously acknowledging that all three are nearing retirement in their own right.
While Bryant continues to give the game everything he can, knowing that it may no longer result in the same level of consistent production as the late aughts, Wade speaks as someone who knows full well what sort of transition happens to NBA players beyond their 30s, a period where basketball IQ provides a slower decline in a period where athleticism opts to deteriorate rapidly. “Out-thinking guys becomes more important than out-jumping guys,” says Wade. “When you can’t get by [defenders] as quickly in the pick and role, you have to be a lot smarter.” But just like Bryant, who has battled injuries and roster turmoil just as much as he has Father Time, Wade confirms the mentality that L.A’s No. 24 has exhibited since the day he stepped foot into the league. “I’d rather play seven years that way than 15 years the way I didn’t want to.”
Long removed from the days of being a wiry kid from Lower Marion high school, Bryant looks more scholarly despite being just 37 years of age. In basketball years, however, 37 goes perfectly with the professorial turtleneck and blazer combination he wore when addressing the Cleveland media for the final time. Starting his journey alongside NBA legends in their own right, Bryant’s career did in fact bridge two undoubtedly great generations of basketball together, traversing over the lost era that, while entertaining at times, was arguably one of the least talented years the league has seen in the last two decades. While he came out with a bang in the mid-90s, he’s well aware that his essay to the game of basketball comes at a time where his best days are long in the rear view.
“I’m comfortable, personally, with it in the sense that I’ve done everything I possibly could to get ready—and I mean everything,” Bryant said on Wednesday night. “So if I come out and I’m not playing as well as I would like to play, I’m not happy about it, but I know that there is literally nothing else that I could possibly give to change the way I’m performing. I just continue to stay at it. As far as wins and losses go, I just have to look at the challenge a little differently. It’s not about winning championships; it’s teaching and helping the young guys. It’s trying to be healthy enough to go out and play and enjoy this ride as much as I can.”
This weekend Kobe’s ride will take him to Toronto where he will start his final All-Star game for the Western Conference. Stockton and Payton may no longer be there, but Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry will be. The double-double prowess of Karl Malone will have been replaced by the silky smooth scoring abilities of Kevin Durant. And the low-post ownership of Hakeem Olajuwon will have given way to some of the game’s best big men in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Come mid-April, the vast majority—if not all—of his All-Star teammates will continue on through the NBA postseason; Bryant, conversely, will set sail into retirement with a career that extended for 20 seasons in the league, five NBA championships, one NBA MVP award, and one of the most impressively complicated careers in recent memory. Not complicated in the way he went about his business on and off of the court, dripping with competitiveness and charisma, having the ability to drop 81 points in a single game, but in the way that a career that spanned such an incredible length of time somehow felt like it merely came and went.
Like “Michael” and “Magic,” we’ll always have “Kobe.” But as Bryant walked out of the doors of Quicken Loans Arena for the final time in his illustrious career, having swapped his turtleneck for a sweatsuit, it’s tough to not feel as if a 20-year career could have somehow been taken for granted. The days of him playing in front of half-filled crowds at The Gund seem like an eternity ago, yet these 20 years seem to have flashed by entirely too fast.