Basketball fans saw Kobe Bryant's heartfelt decision to announce his retirement on Sunday coming from a mile away and the truth is…it was about time.
We knew it would be sooner rather than later. After all, the Los Angeles Lakers star had been battling numerous injuries over the waning years of his career. From his shoulder, to his Achilles tendon, to the finger on his shooting hand.
But as the "Black Mamba" (his nickname after one of the most venomous snakes in the world), he managed to fight his way back and give year number 20 a shot.
However, the Lakers have gotten off to a less than stellar start (2-14), Bryant's numbers have continued to decline across the board and last week the Lakers dropped an embarrassing 44-point loss to the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.
That game against the Warriors, where the Lakers looked outclassed and outmatched, albeit against the defending champs, also saw Bryant have one of his worse games in recent memory. He scored four points on 1-out of-14 shooting from the field, tying the worst shooting percentage of his career.
And he looked awful.
He painfully tossed up several airballs and hoisted up erratic three-point shot after three-point shot. He missed free throws. He struggled to bring the ball up the court against anybody defending him and demonstrated an inability to blow by anyone or execute his patented 'Mamba' moves. It was truly a disappointing sight.
I'll never forget that game because not only was it one of Bryant's worst, but also because it felt like a passing of the torch from one legend to the NBA's next leading superstar in Curry (also the 2015 NBA MVP).
The competitor in Bryant has to see what Curry is doing, what they did last season winning the NBA championship and what they're currently doing this season. He has to hear the conversation about who's currently the best player in the world. Is it Curry? Kevin Durant? LeBron James?
At one point in his career Bryant was that guy. But not anymore. Bryant is no longer the present or the future. He's the past.
If that's not bad enough, he's forced to see one of the Last of the Mohicans, Tim Duncan, of the San Antonio Spurs in a position to compete for a championship year after year.
Did we forget before the world's love affair with Curry and the Warriors, the Spurs were in two of the last three NBA Finals, defeating King James, then with the star-studded Miami Heat in one of the most lopsided NBA Finals ever? You don't think Bryant remembers that? In a split image Duncan and Bryant's careers mirror one another. They're superstar players that played with one team for their entire career under great coaches; Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson. Both players won five championships and will go down as arguably the greatest at their position. Yet there's no slippage with Duncan. In fact, he's aged like wine getting better over time. His numbers and productivity are similar to that of when he first came in the league.
Whether you fell in love with the superstar, who wore the No. 8 jersey, the player who scored 81, or the baller who won five NBA championships, he's not the same guy we're seeing now. He's no longer that slender kid from Philly who went to Lower Merion and left us awe in thinking, "Wow, this is the closest thing I've seen to Michael Jordan."
He's now a 37-year-old legend who has accomplished it all and knows when it's time to leave the game. For that, I respect him.
NBA franchises rise and fall like empires all the time. But the Lakers have hit rock bottom and then some. Imagine watching your favorite player overcoming injury after injury, only to make it back to look like a shell of himself. It hurts. I cling to every airball I hoping that I get just a flash or a glimpse of 'vintage' Bryant, only to be disappointed because 'vintage' Bryant is gone and he isn't coming back.
No longer does he have to live up to some unrealistic expectation set forth by himself or us, the fans. No longer does he have to carry a moribund franchise with an incompetent front office to a "promised land" that we all know is in the rearview mirror. No longer does he have to turn on the TV and radio and hear the media begrudgingly encouraging him to just walk away.
Very few athletes get to leave their respective sport at the top of their game. They have to ask themselves, “What do I want more: To leave my sport on top or leave on my own accord?” Only once they realize the first option is not attainable, they are quickly forced to settle for the latter. For Bryant, he's going out on his own accord.
As he should.