Two seasons lost due to heavy injury. Off the court drama linked to his attitude and turmoil within the franchise. A salary cap-crippling contract that's virtually untradeable and with no end in sight.
An ego and determination that drives him back to the court after many considered him done.
Kobe stepped onto the court in Oakland for the Golden State Warriors home opener after a long challenging preseason filled with blowouts, critics claiming the dynasty was done, and lots of frustration. Already winless and on the verge of going 0-4 for the first time since the franchise moved to LA. But one thing you can say about Saturday night's game: Kobe still has it.
In the 3rd quarter, Kobe went to the hole on a break and took a hard foul, and was still able to flip his shot in. It was vintage Kobe, and his switch was flipped. There was going to be no more passing. It didn't matter who was going to cover him - Kobe was going to put on a show.
And he did for an extended stretch, as he turned on the cheat code and went with hero ball: 19 points in a flurry of step back jumpers, fades into the corner, and a reminder why he has been one of the best players in basketball over the last 15 years. Hate him all you want, it was tough not to at least watch with respect.
The problem? While Kobe was going one-on-five, the Warriors were making layups. And dunks, And threes in transition.
The Warriors were running their offense with ease to create open shots while Kobe was working overtime to make improbable shots. No matter how hard Kobe worked, his team didn't have his back. Bob Fitzgerald said, "At this point the Warriors are simply a better team" and he was absolutely right. Kobe has found himself in the worse of all situations: a team on decline, no support and a franchise facing rebuilding and closing Kobe's final window right in front of him.
But why can't this end like another similar superstar's career?
The captain. He ends his illustrious career with a town-to-town tour of admiration. Even from his most hated rivals, they still reward him with gifts, souvenirs and tokens of appreciation for his long career and success. Gatorate commercials are made to commemorate his final days, with videos of fans tipping hats and offering handshakes popping up daily. The city of New York embraced their prodigal son for his best and his worse. He was not the perfect character - we all knew of this playboy personal life and high-proflle conquests. But nobody cared, in fact it only proved to improve his mystique. No matter what team you rooted for or what city you lived in, you respected Jeter and his love for the game. "He plays the game the right way" or "He leaves it all out on the field."
And how you could you script a better ending? His last game, sold out crowd. The spotlight on the face of the franchise in this last season. There would be no more comebacks, no more chances at the title. The Yankees had been eliminated from the playoffs for some time, but it didn't matter. The city and even the nation still had something to cheer for. And has he hit that game winning single, like everyone knew he would, he walked out on his terms. He celebrated with teammates, old and new. He signed off with his signature smile and cap tip. He went out his way.
Can Kobe Write his own Ending?
Is this how Kobe's career will end? Can Derek Jeter's finale help write the script for Bryant and his Lakers? Kobe has not made a clear indication that this is his last season, and nobody is really sure how much longer he will stubbornly bring himself back out on the floor. Realistically he has one, maybe two seasons left based on his body, but his mind might say otherwise. It's tough to have a farewell tour if we don't know when the farewell will be.
Will we celebrate him? Plenty of fans dislike Kobe for his tarnished legacy. He is disliked for his attitude and killer drive. Jeter was loved for being the kid from the streets with a heart of gold. Kobe could never get over his criminal investigations and locker room drama, single-handedly driving coaches and players out of town.
Can he go out on top? The team can't compete in the West this season against this murder's row of competition to even make the 8th seed. They aren't "one trade" away from adding another scorer to help take the load off Bryant. They aren't waiting for Steve Nash and his rec ball level defense, or Nick Young's horse-style shooting game to come back to fix the team. Add in losing the franchise's future in Julius Randle in the first game of the season you realize the truth: This is it.
Kobe is an unquestionable first ballot Hall of Famer, champion, and game changer. He is still a nightly event that draws attention and fans to the arena. His jersey still sells off the shelves and in spite of basketball rationality national televison still plays his games multiple nights a week. Love him, hate him... sadly, we are all witness to his ship slowly sinking.
What are his options?
Stay the course
This team is going nowhere and Kobe continues to become frustrated. His faces and reactions during the game said it all. Selling out teammates with dirty looks after turnovers, head shaking on defensive lapses. He is tired of carrying poor performers and the season has just started.
What level of frustration will he hit when the team is getting blown out at home by 30 by the league's best? And then what? Would he announce his retirement? Would the league, filled with players and markets that already don't like him, cheer for him and celebrate him when he comes to down?
Quietly retire at the end of the season
Have you seen Kobe? We love him because he gives his all out on the court. He will not do anything quietly, especially retirement. He didn't come all the way back this far to go out a losing note like this.
Kobe embraces his MJ-to-the-Wizards moment
Kobe in a Knicks jersey? Or how about Charlotte with Jordan paying his checks? There is no assurance he could make it to free agency with a healthy body ready to play again for another franchise. The amount of minutes and games he has put on the body are astounding as it is. Seeing Michael in a Wizards jersey that late in his career was sad, but made for a few great moments on TV. Ultimately it was driven by MJ's competitiveness, and I wouldn't put it past Kobe to follow the same path.
So what about a trade? I said before (and you can check the numbers) that he is virtually untradeable. A team is simply not going to give up young talent and valuable draft picks for Kobe at this point in his career. Or will they? Maybe an Eastern Conference team with a glut of assets (Washington? New York? New Jersey?) make a run at Kobe in a weak conference to try to break through with a shot at taking down Chicago and the Cavs. But this hinges on two big factors: #1: Would the Lakers be willing to give up the face of the franchise (No, and Kobe came out to Slam claiming he won't ask) and #2 would Kobe be willing to come to a team with another superstar and not be the face (also No).
As a fan of basketball, I respect Kobe Bryant's game. He is easily one of the most dynamic, amazing players I have seen on the court in my life. It's a sign of being the greatest - he might continually beat your home team, but you still respect him because he does things nobody can.
As a fan of good storylines and respect, I want Kobe to go out on top. Maybe there is another Jeter-esque walk-off moment where he hits a game winner at home or has a 50-point night in him. It's becoming more and more likely that he goes out with a wimper, a sad show of the career that he put in.
Can he still perform? Does he have anything resembling a team around him to help support his drive for another title? Can you squint your eyes long enough to turn Welsey Johnson, Carlos Boozer and Nick Young into Paul Gasol, Karl Malone, Lamar Odom, or Robert Horry? Sometimes our icons get the send off they deserve, and Jeter's city, sport and career came together in one magical moment to send him off properly. Unless we are all proven wrong, Kobe's career will end with a "sigh", a "finally" and an "its about time." Then we can finally start remembering him for what he was, and not for what his career path has brought him to.