Sunday afternoon, while much of the country was either watching NFL games or fantasizing about rib eyes and milk shakes while completing day 3 of their annual post-Thanksgiving Day green-juice cleanse, Kobe Bryant announced that this NBA season would be his last.
The news was both completely shocking and completely foreseeable.
Because while it made logical sense that a 37-year-old playing one of the most athletically demanding positions in professional sports and coming off consecutive season-ending injuries and currently playing so badly that he’s perhaps the least effective starter in the entire NBA would retire soon, Kobe’s career has been a 19-year-long defiance of logic.
If Kobe had announced, instead, that he was going to retire in 20 … 18 (or even 2028), no one would have been too surprised. Because it would have been quintessential Kobe.
But 2016 will be the last time we see Kobe Bean Bryant suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers. He will receive standing ovations in every arena in which he plays. Parents will make sure to bring their children to those games, so their 8-year-old scions will be able to watch this warrior, this living and breathing legend, this furious and beautiful anachronism, in person. Players from other teams will give him hugs and take pictures with him after they play against each other for the final time. Some organizations—definitely the New York Knicks—will officially recognize him with some sort of ceremony.
And, during all of this, there will be thousands—no, millions—of conversations about Kobe’s legacy, his historical impact and, most notably, the degree of his greatness. On the list of the top 20 or so NBA players of all time, where does Kobe place? This question: “We know Kobe is great. But exactly how great is he?” has been the most defining one of his career. And the most maddening because Kobe is a paradox, and every point in his favor comes with a major caveat—and an endless stream of “buts” making him nearly impossible to objectively assess.
He has five NBA titles, but all came while he was equipped with a dominant big man (Shaq for the first three, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for the last two) and one of the best coaches ever (Phil Jackson). He’s regarded by many as the best player of his generation, but he only won one MVP, while three other players (LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash) won multiple MVPs while Kobe was in his prime.
He will end his career as the third-leading scorer in NBA history (and the only guard to crack the top three), a testament to his longevity, work ethic and adroitness. But he spent much of his career so singularly (and, at times, hilariously) focused on scoring baskets that he often did so at the expense of his team’s success. He was one of the NBA’s most exciting players ever, exhibiting a once-in-a-lifetime blend of creativity, drama, flair, world-class athleticism, aggression and skill. But even at his absolute best, he was an almost-completely-accurate-but-just-not-quite-there facsimile of Michael Jordan. It was eerie how closely Kobe’s movements and mannerisms mirrored Mike’s, and even eerier that this replication was intentional.
But Kobe was never as good as Mike. Which is more of a compliment than it seems. Because Kobe could never have been as good as Mike. Mike possessed certain athletic and physical gifts that Kobe just did not have. He wasn’t as quick, he wasn’t as explosive, he didn’t jump as high and he wasn’t equipped with freakishly large hands. But despite these inherent limitations, Kobe worked himself into being a player whom people considered a legitimate heir to the greatest player of all time. And he did that by maximizing his ability.
Although many (and I am a part of that “many”) believe that LeBron James is a better and more effective basketball player than Kobe ever was—and, once his career ends, will rank higher on the all-time list—there are also many (and I am a part of this “many,” too) who also believe that LeBron hasn’t quite maximized his considerable talents. As great as he is and has been, there’s a lingering feeling that he could have been even greater.
There is no such feeling with Kobe. He will retire this year after being the best Kobe Bryant he could have possibly been. And that’s the best compliment you can give him (or anyone else).
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.