He looks the same. The face is still youthful, the walk and swagger still imposing. Kobe Bryant steps onto the floor looking as if he could drop 40 at any time.
The toughest part about accepting Bryant’s demise as a player is that he doesn’t look any different than he did during his dominant years. He isn’t heavier. He still shows flashes of greatness, as he did Wednesday when he carried the Lakers in the fourth quarter to a stunning victory over the Washington Wizards.
There were expectations that a healthy Bryant had at least two or three seasons left. He just needed his body to cooperate. Bryant is apparently healthy, but he can no longer attack the rim. His knees, the subject of surgeries and regeneration procedures in Germany, can no longer provide the lift to consistently hit jump shots.
And in turn, Bryant, never a good 3-point shooter but a clutch one, is settling for the only open shot he can muster, the 3-pointer. Bryant is averaging 7.8 3-point attempts per game, 1.3 more than his previous career high set 10 seasons ago. A month into the season, it was apparent that scoring would be a struggle, so he decided to retire.
Bryant, one of the game’s great scorers, most competitive players, and controversial figures, will end his career after this season. And he is at peace with the decision, as he should be. Of course, Bryant could hang on and come off the bench as some type of microwave scorer, but such a role is beneath him.
He will walk away allowing his accomplishments and talents to speak for themselves, leaving behind a legacy that was built over 20 years. The NBA reacted to his retirement with sadness.
For Bryant, he knew when to acknowledge Father Time.
“I’ve known for a while,” he said. “I’ve always said that if anything changes, it’ll change my mind. The problem is, what does that really mean? You can’t make that decision based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision. Finally, I just had to accept the fact that I don’t want to do this anymore, and I’m OK with that. Once I accepted that, it became time to let everybody know. Why not? It takes a load off my shoulders and everybody else’s. It was just the right thing to do.”
Most athletes decide to retire not because they are no longer interested in playing in games, they are no longer interested in the rigorous preparation it requires to play in games. The rehab. The weightlifting. The treatment. The massages. All of which are necessary for 37-year-olds to play in NBA games against men who were still trying to color inside the lines when Bryant made his pro debut. These are the same players who respect and idolized Kobe, but also have no issue trying to embarrass him.
It’s not that the game has passed Bryant by, but he had to accept that he was no longer able to physically withstand the demands of a young man’s league.
And it appears that Bryant has embraced his retirement as the last step in a journey that all the greats experienced. He said he spoke with Michael Jordan this past summer to discuss the possibility of no longer playing. Jordan retired once to play baseball, retired again at age 35, and then played two seasons with Washington before finally leaving for good at 39.
“There’s beauty in that. It’s going through the cycle. It’s a natural progression of growth and maturation,” Bryant said. “There’s no sadness in that. I’ve had so many great times. I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders anymore. I see the beauty of getting up in the morning and being in pain, because I know all the hard work it took to get to this point. I’m not sad about it. I’m very appreciative of what I’ve had.”
His 31-point performance against the Wizards was the norm a half-decade ago, but now that’s a novelty. He is shooting the lowest percentage of his career, his jump shot erratic, his drives to the basket nonexistent. But he does have more than 60 games left to get his legs back and end on a high. That motivates him.
“I continue to push. I continue to try. That never stops,” he said. “I weight train in the morning, stretch three times a day. When I go home tonight, I’ll stretch again. I’ll ice bath again. When I get up in the morning, I’ll weight train again before the plane. I don’t quit. I’m pushing, pushing, and pushing to see if I can figure this damn thing out. That’s who I am. I would never just capitulate to it. I accept it, I understand it. Now I try to figure out how to get around it. I try my best, and I’ll keep on going.”
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Bryant’s retirement is the fact that he has embraced life beyond basketball. One of the biggest criticisms of Bryant by his teammates throughout his career was his complete consumption with the game and expecting that his teammates be the same way. He wanted everyone around him to take the game more seriously and was angered when they didn’t.
That is no longer the case.
“It probably helps me to be a lot more comfortable and more at peace with my decision. I’m not held slave to my passion,” he said. “To be honest with you, it really took me a long time to find out what it is that I wanted to do [after basketball] — 15 years to be exact. I think that’s a struggle for a lot of us athletes — to figure out what comes next. I was very fortunate to be asking those questions at a very early age: 21 years old. And it took me 15 years to try to figure it out. And it’s tough, because you get caught up in the cycle of, ‘OK, what’s the biggest market I can get into? How I can monetize this and that?’ Those are absolutely the wrong questions to ask.”
If his body breaking down wasn’t nudging him out of the game, it was the actions of younger players who literally were in diapers when Bryant debuted with the Lakers.
He told a story of a Detroit player who walked into the captains’ meeting before the game just to shake Bryant’s hand. And this season, Bryant is teammates with 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell, who was 4 when Bryant won his first NBA championship.
“I feel like their grandfather. I’m not like the older guy, I’m the triple OG,” he said, laughing. “LeBron [James] and them, they’re the old guys now. And I’m way older than them. They’re vets, and I’m like a triple vet. It’s fun, honestly. I remember playing Portland here, and a kid from the bench said something to me: ‘Hey, we’re gonna beat you guys tonight!’ I looked at him and said, ‘I’ve got one rule: If you weren’t born when I started playing, you can’t talk trash.’ It’s a simple rule. And he just looked and [said], ‘Yes, sir.’ No argument.”
Salute to Kobe.
Pierce: Clippers need time to jell
He’s home now, playing in front of family and friends in what is certainly going to be his last NBA stop. Former Celtics great Paul Pierce is playing for Doc Rivers again, trying to end his career in championship style with the Clippers, but things aren’t going smoothly.
The Clippers were 10-9 through Friday, 9½ games behind the undefeated Warriors. What’s more troubling is that the Clippers’ struggles have occurred despite a home-heavy schedule. Los Angeles has played the most home games in the NBA, yet it can’t gain any consistency, getting drubbed by Indiana on Wednesday after a three-game winning streak.
Pierce has seen this before. The 2009-10 Celtics were the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference before making a run to the NBA Finals. He is hardly one to panic, but there appears to be so much pressure on Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan (none of whom have played in an NBA Finals) to carry the Clippers to unprecedented heights.
“I know we got the talent in here, we got all the pieces to put it together,” Pierce said. “People don’t understand we put together eight, nine new players. So it’s not always going to be easy like the team we put together where the chemistry is there right away. We’re still trying to find our chemistry but we know that the talent is here and what we’re capable of.
“I think everybody understands that we’ve got the talent that could do something special.”
Pierce has been a team leader and voice of reason, attempting to hammer home the message that championships aren’t won in November and December, and slow starts are sometimes indicative of a team that needs more time to develop cohesion.
“We’re experiencing [tough times] but the key is not getting frustrated,” he said. “Not getting bored, not getting tired of one another. Just keeping everybody’s spirits up. It’s a long season. We’re going to be a different team in another month or two months from now and a different team once playoffs come. Understand that it’s a process.
“These guys are who they are but I’m still going to be me, get to practice early, get my shots up, get my weights in, that’s going to be me until I’m done.”
As in his previous two stops after 15 years in Boston — Brooklyn and Washington — Pierce is off to a slow start. He is shooting 31.8 percent from the field and averaging a career-low 4.8 points. Murmurs that Pierce was done could be heard last year with the Wizards before he warmed up in the second half of the season and became their best clutch shooter.
“Physically I feel great,” Pierce said. “Doc does a really good job; I haven’t played a lot of minutes. I haven’t had to really deal with the physical grind of the practices. My body feels good. I just want to be able to leave this game on two feet, walking straight.”
When asked what’s different playing for Rivers a second time, Pierce said: “Not too much. He’s still Doc Rivers. Pretty much the same person I played with over an eight- or nine-year period.”
There has been added pressure on Rivers to catapult the Clippers to the Finals now that he has organizational control, and that increased when the club blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rockets in last season’s Western Conference semifinals.
“If it is [more pressure on Rivers] here, you can’t really tell, you kind of felt it more in Boston,” Pierce said. “Especially when we were putting together the [Big Three], we were getting the Sports Illustrated articles, the cover of all these different magazines. We know that this is a team that’s won a lot of games, 50-plus games every year, that’s been knocking on the door of the Western Conference finals. But as far as national media, you don’t feel it as much as it was for us [in 2008].”
Pierce said he is constantly reminded of those championship runs with the Celtics. He got a chance to meet up with close friend Kevin Garnett for the first time this season when the Clippers defeated the Timberwolves Nov. 29, and the two couldn’t help but reminisce about their days in Boston.
“You always think about the fun times you had together, especially when you see those guys,” he said. “You know you had special moments. Those things will never go away. I see it every day at my house now, my memorabilia room I got pictures of all the guys, the trophies and stuff. It’s never going to go away.”
Ray Allen was the first to leave the Big Three when he signed for the rival Heat in 2012 for half the money Boston offered, causing a rift between him, Pierce, and Garnett. Allen hasn’t officially retired but has not played in the NBA since the 2014 Finals.
“I haven’t talked to Ray, I haven’t talked to him in a while,” Pierce said. “Once you sat out a whole year, especially at his age, Ray’s happy, probably on the golf course.”
Pierce recently turned 38 and the return to his native Los Angeles was as much a family decision as a basketball decision. He is enjoying being revered by the league’s younger players, realizing he is nearing the end. He is comfortable with his place.
“We’re the elder statesmen of the league,” Pierce said, laughing. “You feel the respect from the players in the league because a lot of them come up to you before the game and say, ‘What’s up, OG?’ That’s what they like to call me. It’s good, a lot of people have watched my career and understand this could be the last year or maybe next year, and I’m having fun with it still. You still get the respect from the younger players.”
The simple things mean the most to Pierce, such as on Saturday mornings when his 2½-year-old son, Prince, roams around the Clippers’ practice facility.
“Off days I bring my son to the gym, let him run around, grab the ball. It’s been real fun,” he said. “Overall it’s been a real fun experience for my family, for my high school coaches, people who watched me grow up to make it to this point. It’s been a great move for me.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. averaged 11.5 points per game for the Knicks last season, his second in the NBA. He was acquired by the Hawks to be a sharpshooter off the bench but it has hardly worked out that way. The Hawks sent Hardaway to the NBADL last week after he played just four games this season. Hardaway, who left Michigan a year early and was the 24th overall pick in the 2013 draft, was dealt to Atlanta for the draft rights to guard Jerian Grant, who is receiving quality minutes in New York . . . The 76ers have reinforcements coming in swingman Tony Wroten, who has missed the first month of the season following knee surgery. Wroten will give Philly more scoring and another athletic defender . . . At 6-3, the Timberwolves have one of the top road records in the NBA. The problem is they were just 2-7 at home entering Saturday, including losses to Portland, Charlotte, Memphis, and Orlando. The issue may be that coach Sam Mitchell is shying away from playing prized rookie Karl-Anthony Towns in the fourth quarter. He is averaging 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds in just 27.4 minutes per game. Towns is averaging just 6.9 minutes and two shot attempts in the final period . . . Kobe Bryant’s retirement closes the door on the league-changing 1996 draft. That class included Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury, Jermaine O’Neal, and Derek Fisher . . . The two-game suspension of 76ers center Jahlil Okafor stemming from a late-night fight outside a Boston bar is a fair punishment, but it should also serve as an embarrassing testament to general manager Sam Hinkie’s plan of building a roster with nothing but youngsters. Okafor essentially has no mentor on the team, unless you include Carl Landry, who hasn’t played all season. Every great NBA player needs a mentor. Bryant had Byron Scott. Kevin Garnett had Mitchell. Mentoring off the court is one of the more important aspects of developing a rookie into a productive player. Okafor shouldn’t be out at bars at age 19, but he should also have someone in the organization advise him on making the right decisions.
Big Mamba’s House
It’s not surprising that Kobe Bryant holds the scoring record at Staples Center, putting up 81 points in 2006. He has made himself at home on the road as well, owning at least a share of 11 arena scoring marks for a visitor among active players. A look at the list:Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.