Kobe Bryant was finally done. The cameras flashed, the home crowd roared with an extended standing ovation and teammates hugged him as he walked off the floor. Jack Nicholson and Lou Adler were in their usual seats and even they looked emotional. In the locker room after the game, Bryant finally let down his tough guy facade and cried, he had the face of a man who knew his world would never be the same. His career was over.
That was the scene on April 12, 2013.
On that night against the Golden State Warriors, Kobe Bryant scored 34 points in jaw-dropping fashion. It was a typical Bryant performance that had the crowd, and the world buzzing. The guy was unbelievable and on that night he gave us another “Kobe moment” that will live on in history.
With 3:08 remaining in the game and his Lakers down 109-107, Bryant took the ball at the top of the key and drove left on Harrison Barnes. Kobe dribbled once then hit the floor in obvious pain. Barnes was whistled for a foul, but Bryant didn’t pop up like he usually did. He stayed down, massaging the area just above his left ankle. Whatever used to be there was gone. His Achilles tendon had torn.
The Lakers called a timeout, Bryant was helped up by Pau Gasol and he limped to the sideline, refusing any help from teammates, coaches and trainers. Then, after the timeout, he walked – again under his own power – to the free throw line and calmly sunk two shots, tying the game. The Lakers immediately fouled, and Bryant walked off the floor and back to the locker room. He didn’t allow anyone to help him.
LeBron James was once carried off the floor because of leg cramps, while Dwyane Wade dislocated his shoulder and Paul Pierce banged his knee and both needed wheelchairs to get off the court. Bryant completely tore his Achilles tendon and made two free throws before walking off under his own power. Even in the most vulnerable moment of his career, Kobe was defiant. He refused to let anything, even immense physical pain, defeat him.
That was the last time we actually saw Kobe Bryant on an NBA floor.
Forget the last three years where he’s battled injuries while being surrounded by guys in their early 20s, that night in 2013 was Kobe’s last game. Sure he didn’t officially retire, but his career as we knew it was over.
In 2013, despite Steve Nash’s injuries and the 270-pound disaster that was Dwight Howard, Bryant still managed to be his usual, incredible self. That was the 17th season of his career and Kobe played in 78 games while averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 38.6 minutes a night.
For the sake of comparison, Tim Duncan played 74 games in his 17th season and averaged 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists in just 29.2 minutes per contest. Michael Jordan? He only played 15 NBA seasons, and in his farewell year he played in 67 games and averaged 20.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 37.0 minutes.
Bryant was still on top before that small tendon tore. No, he wasn’t “peak Kobe” who had dominated the NBA for nearly a decade and a half, but he was still one of the league’s best, most reliable stars. That April night changed everything.
Since then he’s played in just 106 games over three seasons as he has battled a litany of injuries that have finally caught up with him. Go ahead and point to his numbers and call him selfish for sticking around, but it takes guys like Bryant years to realize they actually need to retire. Jordan is the perfect example of that.
Willie Mays, Jordan, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, heck even Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are all examples of guys who held on too long. That doesn’t diminish what they did. Nothing can diminish their greatness and it won’t diminish Bryant’s.
The last three years have been sad, but I believe Bryant earned the right to play them. The Lakers were in full-on rebuilding mode and they have basically allowed Kobe to do as he pleases in an attempt to put on a show for fans. Bryant still sells out arenas, even in his current diminished form.
At times this year we’ve gotten glimpses of the past. He dropped 35 points on Houston this week, had 34 in his final contest against the Celtics, poured in 38 in 33 minutes against Minnesota on February 2, then went for 27 and 25 over the next two games. He had 26 on 11-of-16 shooting from the field in his final matchup with LeBron James on March 10. Those nights were fun, but things haven’t been the same since his Achilles failed him.
In the end, some will remember Bryant limping to the finish line of his career, but we should instead recall Bryant gingerly walking to that free throw line in defiance of all reason and draining those two shots in 2013. They were the final hoists of one of the most brilliant careers in NBA history.
As Bryant stepped to the line to take those free throws, you could see in his face that he knew. Deep down he was completely aware this was the end. He shook his head, took deep breaths and made the shots, but he knew. We all in some way knew it was over.
I’ll always remember the guy he was before he left that floor on April 12, 2013. That is the Kobe Bryant who owned the NBA for nearly two decades. That is the guy who changed basketball. That is the player who defied all conventions and did things his own way. The guy who plays his final game Wednesday night will be a smiling ambassador for basketball; the guy whose career ended three years ago was a scowling, cold-blooded assassin. I’ll always recall the latter when I think of Kobe Bryant’s career.