It’s at the end of an athlete’s career when the air of invincibility is gone, when time and mortality begin to manifest themselves in full, that we truly see their character. When Muhammad Ali lost his supernatural speed and agility while defying induction into the United States Army we saw his will, and he became all the more beautiful for it. The Michael Jordan who played for the Washington Wizards was not the immortal who played for the Chicago Bulls. There was no longer any ambrosia pumping through his veins but every now and then there was a play or a dunk that made you remember the days when it seemed he sat on Mt. Olympus looking down at the rest of the league. Before the last game of his last season, where he often struggled to be the destructive force that he’s been for twenty years, Kobe Bryant reversed the clock. Unlike Ali and Jordan he leaves basketball with everyone thinking that he still has “it”.
In his last game Kobe Bryant reminded the NBA and the sports world in general that he’s been one of the greatest competitors to play any game. For four quarters he didn’t seemed slowed by multiple season ending injuries in consecutive years. Shooting long jumpers he looked like the Kobe Bryant of the championship years, pump faking younger men into the air and soaring past him as he gathered himself and drained another shot. In short there was enough venom left in the Mamba to vanquish one last adversary, in this case the Utah Jazz, which he did making some spectacular shots in order to win the game in the fourth quarter. But ironically while his last game channeled the Kobe Bryant of old, his farewell speech and his demeanor this last season I think showed his growth. In his farewell speech Kobe Bryant was gracious, funny, and vulnerable, attributes that in his career were rarely shared with the public. I think it’s this growth that won me over as a fan.
Historically I’ve heard Kobe universally described as brash and arrogant, and while that may have been true in previous seasons, here at the end I saw something every different. Whether it was giving Tony Allen a pair of sneakers and declaring that he was the best defender he ever played against or lamenting that he wished he could have played against Lebron James in the Finals he showed a different face than the one he’d presented to the league in prior seasons. Instead of seeing just the hyper competitive, methodical, systematic assassin of the NBA, Kobe showed a grace and class that’s rarely exhibited by an athlete Kobe has shown a grace and a vulnerability that is rare for any one that accomplished.
So this is goodbye, and it’s a unique one. Most players of his caliber are universally embraced as they make their way to the grand finale. But Kobe has been such a unique figure in the league, embraced by Laker fans but reviled by many. Even his Nike commercial comically addressed how much he been hated.
Regardless of how you feel about him Kobe Bryant’s last game was his Beethoven 9th Symphony, his final complete work, showing all the talent and skill he acquired over 20 seasons and carried his team to victory, when in his absence they absolutely would have lost. So if you hate Kobe still it’s okay. To quote Tony Montana just say goodnight to the bad guy, “its going to be the last time you see a bad guy like this.”