Through my brief time as a writer I have gained an affinity for fiction. There are many reasons for this, but a major reason is because the truth is only as good as the world allows it to be, and sometimes I feel as if this is not enough. This holds true for me in many areas of life, but one corner where I find I can delight in authenticity is the world of sports. So often on the field, pitch, or court, what happens defies explanation, and the best screenwriters in hollywood could not write scripts like those seen within the lines.
Jaw dropping events happen seasonally in sport, and stars come and go as they always have, but every once in a while, an individual comes along who repeatedly achieves greatness so often that those watching take what they are seeing for granted. We as spectators grow tired of hearing these individuals names on the news, or become hyper-critical of them when they perform below the level we have grown accustomed to seeing. We may mistake a small decline in excellence for poor performance, or worse yet, we become scornful of their success and fail to properly acknowledge the exquisite art of sustained success that we are witnessing. Such success was typical of Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, and John Wooden and the UCLA basketball powerhouses of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and it continues to be the case with Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, and – dare I say it as a UNC fan – Mike Krzyzewski. These players and coaches, whose successes often garner the hatred of the casual fan, achieve excellence every time they compete. Simply watching them is poetry in motion. But it is one thing to achieve sustained excellence and it is quite another to author a storybook ending. A variety of factors usually inhibit a perfect finish for even the greatest of legends, and that is what makes bearing witness to a seemingly mythical ending so transcendent. This said, people often limit what qualifies as perfect to retiring on top of your sport. It is true that retiring in this fashion is, in fact, a perfect climax for those involved, but the mistake lies in the assumption that one must retire a champion to achieve a storybook ending. This brings us to Kobe Bryant.
Kobe most certainly has not been a champion in his final season, or his final four seasons for that matter. Plagued by season-ending injuries each year from 2013 through 2015, father time finally caught up to the Lakers star, and in 2016 it showed. With a career low field goal percentage of 35.8%, and just 17 wins for his team all year (the worst mark in Lakers history, I might add), it appeared to the world that the Black Mamba had bitten his last victim. Following his retirement announcement, the sporting community began to appreciate the greatness they had taken for granted for the last twenty years. The ensuing games on the Lakers schedule became an appreciation tour more so than a quest for success. To us, performance was secondary to the memory of what once was, and this seemed an adequate, if not appropriate, send-off. But everyone to a man forgot one important detail, this is 5-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant we are talking about, and “adequate” is a bad joke.
There will always be someone who seeks to deny a magical moment simply for denial sake. That person will point out that the Mamba took 50 shots, the most of any player in any game all season, shot 6-21 from behind the arc, and missed his first five shots of the night. All of these stats are true and unarguable. He threw up prayers, took ill-advised threes, started cold, and, in all honesty, played merely average for three quarters despite scoring 37 points. But in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant was Kobe Bryant. First, he eclipsed the crowds modest proposal of 40 points and I thought, “This is such a cool way to go out”. Then, he scored 50 and I knew the night was special. Finally, I blinked, he had 60, and I almost pooped my pants. Bryant closed the game 5 for 5 from the field, and scored or assisted on each of the teams final 17 points, including 13 in a row. This culminated in what ultimately proved to be the game winner with just over 30 seconds to play. With each successive basket in those closing minutes, the crowd grew evermore raucous and the celebration grew evermore joyful. In the past four years, Kobe’s game, if not the man himself, had fallen from the top of the league, and those who saw him in his prime were able to appreciate just how good he used to be. In a sense, his decline highlighted his greatness from years past, but it did not diminish the sorrow felt by his fans for his departure. But just when the world had come to grips with a Kobe who would limp to the finish line of his career, he became the Black Mamba one more time and decided to ride off into the sunset in a Purple and Gold Laker chariot. He did this because he is a legend, and love them or hate them, that is what legends do. Following his final points – two free throws to all but assure the eventual Lakers victory – he looked toward his family sitting courtside with the cheekiest of grins and winked as if to say, “how about that?” Not bad Kobe, not bad at all.
I am not sure what planet the Michael Jordan’s, Derek Jeter’s, and Kobe Bryant’s of the world hail from, but their play throughout their careers constantly reminded us that it is a planet located in a universe different from yours and mine; A planet that bestows upon its sons and daughters a penchant for the theatrical. These Icons repeatedly remind us why we love sports, and every so often, they give us goosebumps and injections of euphoria which assure us that, in a world where so much can go wrong, sometimes the truth is better than fiction.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
A Not-So-Well-Respected Man
To watch highlights from Kobe’s final game, check out these links:
To watch highlights from his entire career, check these out:
If you have 30 minutes and you want to hear him talk, here is his final Lakers press conference:
If you want to watch a poetic ending to another legendary career, I present you with Derek Jeter: