- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2015

It all ends. Even as a ruthless teenager bent on taking over the league, Kobe Bryant knew it. He thought maybe 13 years into his NBA career he would stop. There would be enough titles, adulation, cash, fulfillment. Enough basketball. But, giving in is the hard part. A conversation with mortality spurred by stiff legs and flat jump shots comes around. The ego doesn’t want to listen. The aches leave no choice.

Bryant started his ending with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday when he published a poem that announced his retirement. The gentle declaration that a ferocious career was closing foreshadowed the week to come. Seething Kobe Bryant has been replaced with a pat-on-the-back diplomat. In his hometown of Philadelphia, he hugged ushers who knew him when he was a baby. A joyous headlock was applied to 76ers equipment manager Scotty Rego, who has placed pretzels and mustard atop Bryant’s visiting locker for years. Bryant beamed.

A day later in Washington, cameras jammed the hall just to catch a snippet of Bryant walking in. Bespoke suit, face appearing wrinkle-free, roller bag in tow, this could have been the Bryant of years past, one that would warm up on the road drilling footwork and fadeaways in the mid-post, then stand sweating and stern-faced in the locker room watching game tape of the opponent. Instead, he smirked at the compacted looky-loos before veering into the locker room.

Bryant will be done with professional basketball on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles. Alerting the world that this is occurring instantly delivered a unique season. The Lakers have young talent, no playoff hopes, a coach in a hard spot, and a basketball legend at an end.

Each road game since Bryant’s capitulation has been a back-checking of lore. In Philadelphia, Bryant’s youth and head-butting relationship with his hometown was the topic. In Washington, where the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Bryant on Wednesday night, Bryant mentioned the bitterness of having a 19-game winning streak snapped in 2000. In both arenas, people maniacally cheered for Bryant. Touching the ball was enough to stir the cauldron of hope, that one more time, the last time for many, they would see Bryant’s majesty. Each crossover built the fervor. Then, a roar if a shot went down. They chanted his name at the end of each game.

“I thought everybody hated me,” Bryant said.

Making it last

In a 48-hour span, Los Angeles learned what this final season for Bryant will be like. Certain nights, he will fail, grapple with his former self, calcify as the game goes on. Others, he will feel sturdiness, return to the footwork that is the foundation of being the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer. He’ll hold a follow through, chomp his jersey. It will be like it was.

Lined up for the National Anthem in Philadelphia, 14 cameras on the court faced the Lakers. None pointed toward the hometown 76ers. Bryant’s face was shown on the video board with a flowing American flag behind it.

Bryant’s first two 3-pointers went in. He missed the third, but up went another following an offensive rebound. That went in. His next attempt was off the dribble. Air ball. The kind of miss that could be attributed to a breeze on the beach or rain at the playground. Instead, old age poked Bryant early in the game.

A swift slide from the juiced start followed. Bryant shot 17 3-pointers and made only four. The bad shooting raised his 3-point percentage, a snarled statistical representation of how atrocious his shooting had been to start the season. He looked spent.

That’s how Bryant has often appeared this season. He has needed 18 shots per game to average 16.8 points. His shooting percentages are abysmal: 31.1 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from behind the 3-point line. Bryant has devolved into an inaccurate chucker.

“A lot of the bad games people said he had, it wasn’t his fault,” Lakers forward Metta World Peace said. “Some of it was, some of the shot selection was kind of crazy. It was like 50-50 because we’re not an experienced team. So, sometimes as a unit, we make each other look bad, make Kobe look bad, make me look bad, make the rookies look bad as a unit, because we’re not experienced.”

Even if he wasn’t 37 and had not played more than 55,000 minutes of NBA basketball, Bryant’s body had taken a recent beating that would slow any player. He tore his left Achilles’ tendon, cracked his left kneecap and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder during the last three years.

Sitting on the end of the bench with one towel to remove sweat from his head and another draped over his legs, Bryant became more rigid in Philadelphia. He’s needed to tell Lakers coach Byron Scott when his legs fail and it is time to be removed from a game. Bryant had used a stationary bike in the past to counter stiffness, though he felt that had other drawbacks, like tightening his hips and back. He’s trying to find the right mix of stretching, movement and playing time in order to unlock his creaking body.

Maintaining Bryant is one of Scott’s responsibilities in what will be the 15th and strangest season of his coaching career. Scott played with Bryant and has known him since he entered the league. When Bryant was 18, he went with Scott to the beach, and they sat on a lifeguard tower talking about the future. Bryant asked questions. The discussions were long. Scott had seen a similar drive once before in Magic Johnson. It was rare.

“He wasn’t like any other 18 year old I had ever been around,” Scott said. “He wasn’t reading the funnies in the newspaper. He wasn’t reading Sports Illustrated. He was reading Time magazine and all this other stuff I wasn’t reading until I was 30 years old. He was different.

“At 18, he knew exactly what he wanted to be. I asked him point blank, ‘What do you want to achieve in this league?’ He said, ‘I want to be the best player in this league.’ We both looked at each other, I said, ‘You will be,’ because I knew how hard he worked. And, he was for a long time. He didn’t get credit for it a lot, but he was the best player in this league for a long time.”

Scott was aware when it was over for him. He was 36. In the summer, he tried to prepare himself for the following season with his regular routine. He could no longer perform it. His superior ability to run and jump had been sapped. Scott used words like “mortal” and “Superman” when talking about the jolt his mind took when his legs failed. In some ways, he felt trapped.

“The athleticism was fading fast, but the mind was still sharp,” Scott said. “I think that’s what K.B. is going through. He can still see it, think it and imagine it, you just can’t do it, and that’s hard.”

After the fruitless performance against the 76ers, Bryant’s happy face remained on. He opened with a joke about how poor the basketball was that evening, in large part because of his struggle. Watching Bryant lose his dribble at times against the 76ers when he sped up his body, or shoot air balls, or the bad misses that prompted him to throw a frustrated fist in the air made it easy to wonder how he was going to make it to April. Scott said Bryant will try to play every game, even back-to-backs.

“I’m, what, going to save it for pickup basketball at Equinox?” Bryant said. “I’m going to play. … God willing, I’m healthy and I can walk and run, then my butt will be out there.”

He’ll be monitored and listened to. Perhaps, Scott will have to remove his friend from the court in order to sustain him. A broken man can’t finish a victory lap.

“If I can, make sure I keep his minutes to a minimum and that he can finish this year standing up and not laying down on some surgery table or anything like that,” Scott said. “If that’s within my power, then that’s what I plan on doing.”

Bryant arrived in Washington to play the team’s fourth game in five nights. These are breakdown games for every team in the league, and pregame started with questions for Scott about whether Bryant would play. He assured he would.

The start could not have been more different than in Philadelphia. Bryant pointed the young players to proper spots, passed, was a decoy. He waited more than four minutes to shoot. It took him 12 seconds in Philadelphia.

By the end, a tight game between the woeful Lakers and hopeful Wizards emerged. Bryant faced multiple defenders — Otto Porter, Garrett Temple, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre Jr. and John Wall — like in years past. Similar to his halcyon days, the opposition was irrelevant. Bryant scored a season-high 31 points. Baseline fadeaways, pull-ups at the elbow, an occasional 3-pointer.

On the floor was the player seven-time all-star Grant Hill knew. Hill, who retired in 2013, guarded Bryant dozens of times and attempted to handle him differently than others he faced. For instance, Hill felt LeBron James was more predictable than Bryant. If James dribbled right, he would try to get to the rim. Left, he would stop for a jump shot. Keep him out of transition and off the foul line, if possible.

With Bryant, he could go all the way or stop in either direction. In the post, he can shoot over both shoulders. Repetition by a defender, say, trying to force Bryant in one direction, only seemed to make it easier for him.

“Sometimes, it was just like a rebound,” Hill said. “You can’t always diagram how you’re going to box out and get a rebound. The great rebounders just want it more than others. Sometimes, I think you have to throw out all the strategy, and say, ‘You know what? I want the challenge. I’m going to get in his face, I’m going to do all I can and not let him score.’ Because if you go in with [a thought to] force him this way or force him that way, or make him do that, he was good enough to counter everything you threw at him.”

That’s the player who showed up at Verizon Center. Bryant scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. He, counterintuitively, survived the finish of a laborious run to thrive at the end of the game. It was enough for a momentary return of the dagger-throwing Bryant afterward, when he was asked if he needed such a performance to show himself his body could still accomplish such things.

“No,” Bryant said. “Maybe writers like you needed it.”

Bryant smiled, then expanded on his answer, quickly making the room again feel like it was filled with cupcakes and balloon animals.

All good things…

The Lakers are two games into an eight-game road trip. Kobe’s Farewell Tour (no sponsor, yet) next stops in Atlanta on Friday. The Hawks and Zoo Atlanta named a black mamba Kobe in his honor. He’ll pop into Detroit two days later, where Pistons fans may not be so receptive. Toronto will bring talk of the 81-point game. Minnesota houses fellow old-head Kevin Garnett. Then, a visit to San Antonio, which has so often been the barrier when trying to win the Western Conference. A stop in Houston follows, preceding three days off.

Bryant’s recent injuries suggest he won’t make it to April. That the derailment of his feel-good departure is a pending certainty, not an unlikely possibility. Keeping Bryant on the floor is the basis for everything that happened in his first days since announcing his retirement. He was bad in Philadelphia and clock-reversing in Washington while playing 30-plus minutes each game. Both places fawned over and feted him.

“Basically, the whole damn crowd was behind him,” Wizards guard Garrett Temple said.

“Felt really good to play the game in front of the fans and have that amount of appreciation,” Bryant said. “It really is a beautiful thing.”

When he’s done, Bryant said he will not coach and may consider an ownership-type role with the Lakers or 76ers, were one to be extended. Instead, Bryant said he wants to tell stories. He’s fascinated with development of a narrative, and its distribution in the digital age. His ending is teetering on well-worn legs and full internal acceptance his professional basketball life is almost over. This is the end. Even his smiles cannot stop that.

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