Kobe Bryant announced he will retire at the end of this NBA season. Twenty years, more than 1,300 games, 45,000-plus minutes, 33,000 points on over 11,000 buckets, five titles, one MVP, seventeen-times an All-Star, and the man who delivered thousands of scowls on the court. One heart in demand of greatness; one competitor craving competition.
But now Kobe readies for the greatest challenge of his life: leaving the game of basketball.
Kobe Bryant is a basketball all-timer. His name will rest with Magic and Michael, Larry and Russell, the Big O, Kareem, Wilt, Dr. J. His face can live on basketball’s Mt. Rushmore, or any other imaginary throne sport-heads need to construct. We’ll remember the footwork, a flawless symphony in sneakers, and the way his moves sliced traffic. He had hops and hang-time and flair. A jumper that recalled MJ, and the obsessive drive that demanded he push himself every second until their names could be exhaled in the same breath.
Love is a strong word. One of power and passion. Kobe, as the most driven athletes do, loves basketball unconditionally—the way a parent loves a child. So, despite what he might claim, there is no plan for life after basketball. There can’t be. Can parents ready themselves for the loud silence inside their home once children leave for college? No, they can only hear the empty house once it surrounds them. Same with basketball for Kobe. There was never going to be an end, until there had to be.
Kobe Bryant’s identity is basketball. It’s his purpose—the why behind every jumper he hoists before 5:00 am. It’s his drive—the reason he’s still chasing young bloods half his age and a third his skill down 94-feet of hardwood. Kobe isn’t all basketball, but all of basketball breathes inside Kobe.
Crowds will gather for his farewell tour, this odd spectacle of entire franchises celebrating a ruthless scorer who, behind his affable, “I’m about to retire smile,” wants nothing more than to drop fifty on his well-wishers and leave knowing he one-upped them one final time. Fans will clap, holler, and cry. Sportswriters will pen memories. Fourth-quarter clocks will tick lower while games hang in the balance. Kobe will make shots—maybe miss more—and in flashes remind the sports-world why it celebrates his cold-blooded greatness.
The fire to play will always burn, its embers impossible to extinguish. Still, retirement must arrive, just as the cheers will quiet and the pre-tip-off nerves cease their rumblings. Reunions will happen, as will hall of fame celebrations. These moments come with the warm memories that accompany our reflections once infused with sports-hero nostalgia. They occur in a blink, though, and the satisfaction from them flashes faster than our heroes’ athletic primes. Cheers from the crowds will champion what Kobe was to the public as a player and not who he is to himself. This realization is why saying goodbye is so damn hard.
Kobe Bryant’s heart will never quit basketball. The echoes of a ball bouncing in an empty gym—that cadence of work being dedicated with nobody watching—will never leave his head. Nor will the feel of leather rolling off his fingertips, or the swish of a brown ball clearing red iron and sinking through a soft net, ever flee his mind. He’ll long to wipe the sweat from his forehead after an off-season practice, knowing that each bead counts as equity earned on a road to greatness.
Kobe has earned our praise for his dedication to basketball. Now, though, he must answer the question that every athlete at every level fears asking: What comes next?