Last Call
Kobe Bryant’s historic career appears to have one more season remaining. Where does the Black Mamba go from here?

It’s the night of a late-January game in Los Angeles, the Washington Wizards are in town to take on the moribund Lakers and the mood at the Staples Center is festive.

There’s no indication from the crowd that their beloved Lakers will soon be tagged with a ninth consecutive loss, en route to the worst season in franchise history, a 21-61 stain. No one—not the fans, the local media, and not even the Lakers themselves—seems too bummed about the way things have unfolded—that a stunning total of 339 games were missed due to injuries and that Kobe Bryant’s penultimate season in the NBA was cut short after just 35 games due to a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Instead, people are genuinely excited to be in the building, heartily cheer for their band of misfits in purple and gold and go home not especially unhappy despite the predictable L. It’s the dirty little secret in L.A.: being at a Laker game, no matter how terrible the team may be, is still a pretty fun outing. Celebrities of all sorts dot the arena—Ron Artest randomly shows up on this particular night (taking a seat next to courtside fixture Jimmy Goldstein) and receives the loudest cheers. The vibe is a decidedly carefree one, the unmistakable mark of lowered expectations.

The only people who are visibly and consistently bothered by what they’re seeing seem to be head coach Byron Scott and, the few times he’s heard from, Kobe. Who can forget Bryant’s now-infamous appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live in February, as he angrily and wordlessly watched a clip of his goofy teammates celebrating the end of a seven-game losing streak as though they’d won the title?

Bryant, 36, is set to make $25 million in 2015-16, in what the Lakers are treating as his final season in the League. They promise to send him off with a lavish bang during his 20th campaign. Whether that includes a reasonably competitive roster, though, remains to be seen.

The only guarantee is that Kobe’s approach will not change. “If anybody can come back, it’s Kobe,” Carlos Boozer says. “He attacks his rehab and is a monster with his work ethic. I don’t expect anything different.”

“I don’t see Kobe as a type of guy who wants to leave his legacy on those terms,” adds Scott. “He wants to go out on his own terms.”

One of the more remarkable careers in professional sports history is entering its last leg, and the fear among Kobe fans is that it will end, almost unfathomably, with a whimper.

Assuming the Lakers break out of their two-year free agency slump and convince an A-lister or two to sign on the dotted line this summer, can Kobe accept a reduced role like the one Paul Pierce has so readily embraced in Washington? That of a wily, fearless veteran, playing limited minutes and laying mostly in wait for opportunities to cut down unsuspecting and inexperienced opponents? Everything we know about the man would seem to indicate that his pride would never allow it.

“You think I’ll hang around and average 19 or 18?” he rhetorically asked a group of reporters in February of 2012. “Hell no.”

It’s a fascinating conundrum for Bryant and the Lakers’ front office: Would any superstar be willing to put up with Kobe at this fading stage of his career, with his body clearly failing him yet his brain unwilling to give an inch? Ask Dwight Howard.

For a generation of NBA fans, Bryant forces us to reckon with our own fragile states and looming mortality. His travails are a sobering reminder of the ups-and-downs one must negotiate over the course of a lifetime.

The bright-eyed kid with dark sunglasses perched atop his dome who announced his arrival by stating that he had “decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA” (14 years before LeBron James infamously took his to South Beach) is now one of the elder statesmen in the League, treated as a beloved figure in many of the gyms by crowds that for two decades hated and feared him in equal measures.

It’s staggering to contemplate all he’s done through 19 seasons: a scrawny preps-to-pros phenom turning himself from a bench-warmer to the youngest NBA All-Star ever, winning three Championships before the age of 25, playing with and outlasting Shaquille O’Neal in Hollywood, scoring 81 points in a single game (while averaging 35.4 ppg for the 2005-06 season), winning two more ’chips sans Shaq, passing his idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list, and now, finally, transitioning into retirement.

There were also plenty of dark days for Kobe. For years he fought against a reputation as an unrepentant gunner, more concerned with his own personal glory than the success of the team. His own coach, the legendary Phil Jackson, penned a book following the ’03-04 season that placed special focus on his inability to get through to the young superstar. The fans in his hometown of Philadelphia refused to embrace him—their relentless booing at the ’02 All-Star Game had Bryant fighting back tears while accepting the MVP trophy. Kobe was charged with sexual assault in Colorado in a case that was eventually dismissed in ’04. Bryant’s wife Vanessa filed for divorce in ’11, though the two sides eventually reconciled. He endured three losing seasons and two heart-breaking NBA Finals defeats.

Before his body started to falter, watching Kobe Bryant play was a revelation. He was a furious blur, never satisfied even when he reached the pinnacle of his sport, considered by many as the greatest in the game. There’s a famous image of Kobe (below) all alone after winning the ’01 Finals, hunched over and greedily clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy with a bottle of expensive bubbly resting between his feet inside the triumphant Laker locker room. The look on his face isn’t joy or relief; his expression is one of, “I told you motherfuckers. And there will be plenty more of these before it’s all said and done.”

His legacy was built on a maniacal will to win, a complete lack of fear in pressure situations and a desire and ability to score that was oftentimes unmatched in League history.

And by coming into prominence between the end of Jordan’s era and building the bridge to LeBron, Kobe was always an interesting character study. He played with a passion that occasionally made even his peers uncomfortable. This was most evident during All-Star Games, which he treated like the Playoffs, while others seemingly just wanted to slowly work off hangovers from the previous night until the fourth quarter.

“It’s just fun. We’re some of the last of our generation,” Pierce says. “That’s pretty much a lot of the things we talked about on the court, a little bit of a trash in there. We also said there’s no trash talkers in the League today coming up. It’s a generation that’s passing by and a lot of these guys are friends. I don’t think this new generation is as competitive as we were with the past guys.”

Bryant has always been almost cartoonishly obsessed with his craft. His mission was simple: Destroy all foes on the court. And he went about it with unusual intensity. This brazenly single-minded determination initially alienated much-older teammates who couldn’t tolerate his cockiness on-court or understand why he wouldn’t socialize with them off it (Kobe was technically too young to join them for drinks at the club, but above all, uninterested in this sort of fraternization). Instead, he was content to hoist up countless jumpers in empty gyms and pore over hours of film, team chemistry be damned.

His outsider status was nothing new. After all, when Kobe was 6 years old, his family moved to Italy and stayed for seven years so that his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant—a former NBA player—could extend his pro basketball career.

Bryant grew up and matured, of course, becoming a respected team leader and forming tight bonds with certain players around the NBA. But true friendship, he has admitted of late, remains a tricky field for him to navigate. Derek Fisher, his long-time teammate and perhaps closest friend, confided to GQ in 2010 that he’d never been to Kobe’s Newport Beach mansion.

By making the wildly unpopular decision to ink their franchise player to a two-year, $48.5 million contract in 2013, the Lakers basically ensured that the organization wouldn’t be competitive for the duration of the pact, and once the unbelievable rash of injuries hit, tank mode was fully activated.

The Lakers want next season to be one grand sendoff for Kobe, but he’s still desperate and crazy enough to think that winning a sixth and final title is within grasp. It’s hard to imagine the team being considerably better than it has been the last two years—a span that saw them amass a mere 48 wins—let alone sniffing a Championship. Will Bryant grit his teeth and at least pretend to enjoy the nightly pomp and ceremony? Or will he be the weirdo awkwardly sulking in the corner as the party thrown in his honor rages on?

With his career winding down, and forced by devastating injuries to find ways to occupy his time that don’t involve training or a basketball, Kobe has begun to let us into his private world a little bit. He was the executive producer of Kobe Bryant’s Muse, a candid documentary that took measure of his life up to this point. There was poignant footage of him learning about the severity of a right shoulder injury that prematurely ended his season. He tearfully admitted that he thought he was the cause of his wife’s miscarriage as a result of the stress brought on by his sexual assault charges. And even though it often traveled the familiar route that most sports docs take, the piece offered a rare peek behind the curtain and humanized Bryant in a way that really hadn’t been done before.

He also gave a hint of what his post-NBA life will consist of, announcing the creation of Kobe Inc. last year, a marketing company he formed to “own and help grow brands and ideas that challenge and redefine the sports industry while inspiring,” Bryant told ESPN. “If it doesn’t have the limbs of the sports industry, which I understand extremely well, then I probably won’t touch it.” TV networks will surely come hard after him once he retires, and even though TNT et al. would love for him to join their broadcasts, it would be shocking to see Kobe yukking it up with Shaq and the guys in front of the camera.

Ever since an Achilles injury in the 78th game of the 2012-13 season, one in which he played heroically and dragged a reluctant Laker team into the Playoffs, Bryant has only suited up 41 times. Meanwhile, the modern NBA game has continued to evolve, placing greater emphasis on quick passes, three-pointers, free throws and shots close to the rim. It no longer seems suited to Bryant’s preferred style of play: bruising post-play is out for the most part, and volume shooters with a penchant for long two-pointers are now met with scorn and derision by the basketball cognoscenti.

Only four players in the history of the League have played more regular-season and Playoff minutes than Kobe Bryant. His once-blazing speed and otherworldly hops gone, Kobe now plods up and down the court, looking for opportunities to back down smaller defenders and fire off a fadeaway. Last season, he averaged 22.3 points a game on a career-low 37.3 percent shooting. His filter-free media interviews and Twitter feed have become a lot more entertaining than his increasingly creaky game.

It’s simpler and much easier to stomach thinking of Kobe now in terms of what he once was. He is, at 36 years old and in declining basketball health, largely a figment of our shared past. A glorious relic, whose greatest triumphs live on in worshipful YouTube montages, but a relic nonetheless.

And despite his immense ego, even Bryant seems to grudgingly acknowledge this reality. There has been a growing willingness to discuss retirement, and three consecutive season-ending injuries appear to have sapped some of his legendary zeal for offseason workouts.

“When the end comes, I’m fine with that,” Bryant recently told Ahmad Rashad in a televised chat. “I’m not afraid of change. I’m not afraid of evolving. I’m not afraid of it.” Ever the optimist, however, Bryant added that he’s hoping for a “rebirth” of sorts next season.

The end of Kobe Bryant’s basketball journey is drawing nigh, and though inevitable, saying goodbye comes with a tinge of sadness and concern for his fans. We worry about him struggling to fill the void, perhaps falling into the same trap Jordan did by hanging around long past his expiration date, limping through two forgettable seasons in DC.

Unlike MJ, who despite his own obsession with the game enjoyed life quite a bit away from the court, the popular caricature of Bryant is that of a robot created for the sole purpose of winning at basketball. But this can’t really be true, can it? There has to be more to the man than what he does in that 94x50 foot rectangle.

Kobe Bryant has a chance to control the narrative moving forward, to go against the conventional wisdom that his über-competitive nature will prevent him from gracefully bowing out when his current deal expires and let the burgeoning crop of superstars carry the NBA forward. He has always bucked against the norms set by others, and to great personal benefit, so why not do it again when the appropriate time comes to hang up his Nikes for good?

A first ballot trip to the Hall of Fame awaits Bryant, and his status as one of the 10 greatest basketball players to ever breathe is secure. Realistically, there is nothing left for him to prove to anyone, not even himself.

But like everything else in his life, Kobe Bean Bryant will dictate the terms of how his singularly brilliant career ends.

Marcel Mutoni is an Online News Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @marcel_mutoni

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