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Wednesday, 20 April 2016 16:18

Kobe’s swan song turned out to be a masterpiece

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op bryant“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

— Dylan Thomas

Maybe it is because I have followed his career since he was a teenager playing high school basketball at Lower Merion in a Philadelphia suburb. Or maybe it is because I wanted to pay my respects to a basketball legend, one of a small handful of the greatest players ever to play the game. Most likely, it is because I have also seen my “game” diminished by the ravages of time, and I wanted to watch Kobe Bryant play his last game in the NBA as a simple act of brotherhood.

Whatever it was, I knew I had to see the game — the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Utah Jazz — even if it meant nothing in the standings, even if it meant staying up until the wee hours of the morning on a weeknight.

In his prime, Kobe’s athleticism bordered on the miraculous. He had the grace of a ballet dancer, the explosive power of an Olympic high jumper, and the strength of a steel mill worker. All of that combined in one body, and yet the things he could do physically were secondary to his incredible work ethic and his determination to win, both as an individual and as the leader of his team.

During the course of his 20-year career, there were conflicts and criticisms. Early on, other NBA players — even some of his teammates — regarded Kobe as a showboat, arrogant, even entitled. Part of this was his background. Unlike many NBA players, Kobe grew up in relative affluence. His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was also an NBA player. 

But most of the problem was that Kobe was always preternaturally self-confident. It was not really in his nature to “pay his dues” by being deferential to older, more established players in the league, and that was a problem from the start.

The Lakers had acquired the rights to Kobe — who was 17 years old at the time — from the Charlotte Hornets, while signing mammoth center Shaquille O’Neal to form what would eventually become one of the most dynamic pairs of athletes ever to play on the same team. 

Critics wondered, with some justification, whether it would work. Who would be the alpha dog? Was Los Angeles big enough for both of those enormous egos? Indeed, it was a pretty turbulent ride and it didn’t end pretty, but that Laker team still managed to win three consecutive NBA championships before the inevitable break-up.

Without Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers struggled to find a new identity for a few years until general manager Mitch Kupchak traded for Pau Gasol, another supremely skilled big man, and on this version of the Lakers, there was never any doubt who was in charge, as Kobe led the Lakers to two more NBA championships, including one over the arch-enemy Boston Celtics in 2010.

There was some talk of Kobe winning a sixth championship — which would give him the same number as Michael Jordan, with whom he had been compared throughout his career — but it was not to be. Other, younger teams began to rise, and Kobe’s skills — and his body — began to show signs of deterioration. Three years ago, he ruptured his Achilles and had to sit out for almost a year. He worked hard and was able to come back, but he no longer had the lift he once had. He might be able to make it as a role player, but come on. This is Kobe Bryant we are talking about.

When he decided to come back for one more season — this season — I feared the worst, a version of Kobe that would be painful to watch, like watching Willie Mays playing out his last days as a Met, a pale shadow of himself.

It didn’t turn out to be quite that bad, but it was pretty bad all the same. Kobe kept hoisting up shots, making a lower percentage of them than ever, and it was all too clear all too often that he just did not have the strength or quickness to fuel his competitive drive.

And the Lakers were truly dreadful, limping into the final game of Kobe’s storied career with a wretched record of 16-65. At the very same moment that Kobe was suiting up for the last time, the Golden State Warriors were about to play the Memphis Grizzlies with a shot at breaking the NBA record for most wins in a season, a remarkable feat. On any other night, I would be tuning in to watch basketball history being made. But not tonight. Regardless of how ugly the Lakers game might get, I still had to watch Kobe.

I thought maybe Kobe would go for 20 points or so, soak in the ovations, leave the court with about five minutes to play in the fourth quarter, and hug everyone in sight, even Shaquille O’Neal, who was sitting in the front row, as a final farewell.

 It became clear very early in the game that this was not the plan. Regardless of the outcome, Kobe was going to go all out one more time. No one else on the team wanted to shoot. They kept passing the ball to Kobe, and the shots kept going up. Some of them were going in, though there were more than a few bad shots, and even a groan-inducing air ball that had Kobe shaking his head.

Then came the second half, which I will never forget, because Kobe Bryant did something that I have never seen anyone else do. He conjured his youth. He became the Kobe of old, making shots all over the court, daring opponents to guard him, willing his overmatched team to win. In the fourth quarter, he outscored the Utah Jazz by himself, finishing with a total of 60 points as the Lakers won the game. No one who saw it will ever forget it.

Golden State did win their game and break the record, winning a mere 56 games more than Kobe’s Lakers this season, but all anyone could talk about the next day was Kobe’s magnificent performance.

Dylan Thomas was right, old age SHOULD burn and rave at close of day. In the Staples Center in Los Angeles last week, it raved one last time as Kobe Bean Bryant raged against the dying of the light. Everyone is raving still.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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