It's too easy to imagine the scene -- mid 2000s suburbia, a winding neighborhood where the kids are constantly pounding their orange orbs into the cracks of concrete driveways, looping them up at rickety basketball hoops to imitate a certain NBA player's leaning fadeaway.
Chances are, that certain NBA player was Kobe Bryant.
Throughout his NBA career, Kobe has been as lauded as anyone, praised at the astronomical levels of Michael Jordan, and imitated in every driveway from Hollywood to Beijing. His jersey sold across the globe, his clean, twisting turnaround jumper universally marveled, in 20 years, Bryant has become bigger than a star. He's been the NBA's red supergiant since the calendar flipped to the year 2000, but on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, his reign will finally end.
It's no surprise how difficult it is to fully wrap your head around the fact that Bryant's final game is here. Wednesday night at Staples Center, the Los Angeles Lakers will entertain the Utah Jazz, who need a win and an earlier Houston Rockets loss to sneak into the playoffs. Yet even under decent postseason circumstances, the spotlight, as it always has, will remain on Kobe Bryant.
It's a testament to his legacy, really. Even in times of Laker peril -- LA has a measly 16 wins this season -- everyone flocks to Kobe. 20 years later, even when the NBA is veering away from Kobe's beloved long two-pointers, even when his Lakers seem to be falling to pieces, even when his body is almost broken, the basketball world remains perpetually glued to his legend.
And why not?
The Mamba's Legacy
Whatever tearjerking montage the Lakers flash onto the screens in Staples Center before Wednesday's game should have it all -- the twisting jumpers, the eye popping slams, the grit, the work ethic, the dozens of daggers and buzzer beaters. Yet, there's much more to the illustrious career of Kobe Bean Bryant than what meets the eye. His love and devotion to the game and it's history is rivaled by few; Bryant has always been an excellent student of the game, and you can almost imagine him laboring over textbooks and film of old NBA games into the dark of a late Los Angeles night. With the history and knowledge, Kobe wanted to be the best. He wanted to be just like Jordan, and his trash talking, work ethic and pure ferocity would send him on his way.
Today's NBA makes it seem clear: it might be a long time before we find another Kobe Bryant. Who knows if we even see another one? Do you think Andrew Wiggins has a chance to win 5 championships? What about Kevin Durant? Well, surely Kobe would have biting words for both of them on that. Don't diss the Black Mamba because he will fire back at you with his red super giant flame and then gobble up your remains. Their aren't many NBA players left who talk smack and make their opponents crumple into a nervous heap the way he does. And perhaps their never will be.
Two days ago, in Kobe's second to last game, Bryant lounged on the bench wrapped in a blanket, a suit even, of ace bandages, ice packs, and towels. One photo shows him spread out on the bench with his tongue out, exhausted from being blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Another photo shows him sitting the same way, but with a tired, white grin as his teammates huddle nearby. This... this is Kobe Bryant slipping away from us. It's hard, and he's as tired as ever. In his retirement confirming poem on The Players' Tribune, Bryant said he knew his body was breaking down:
"My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye."
Yet, as only he could, Bryant admitted that it's okay. He knows it's time to go. He knows 20 years is enough. But basketball, as it is with his fans from Hollywood to Beijing, will always be in his heart.
On Wednesday night, he will do it for the final time. The pregame montage will be chilling, the introductions spine tingling, and the game an emotional ride twirling deep into the East Coast night (tip-off is around 10:30 PM). You better believe Kobe will bring it. Just because his body knows it's time to say goodbye doesn't mean the time isn't fully here yet. Staples Center, even for a 16-win team, will be rocking the Earth to its California core.
And Kobe Bryant will do his best imitation of the kids in the driveways. He'll tap the orange orb onto the hardwood, and he'll rise up to loop all the leaning fadeaways he wants into the net. He'll talk trash too. And he'll smile. But, this is it. This is the end.
We'll miss you, Kobe.