LOS ANGELES – The end.
It is the thing he has pushed away as it were an annoying defender; a subject that until very recently induced one of his dramatic eye rolls.
As injuries ended each of his last three seasons and his 20th year was being dominated by serious concerns over his shot selection and minutes. By Sunday, there was no more hiding a truth that had been confirmed night after night by a steady stream of off-the-mark 3-pointers and mounting frustration.
Kobe Bryant will retire following this season.
The announcement came in the form of a letter, a poem, posted to The Players’ Tribune hours before the Lakers (2-14) suffered a 107-103 loss to the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center.
Bryant had long said he expected this to be his final season, but said only recently did he get over the final hump of knowing that he did not want to endure the mental and physical rigors of the game for another year.
“Once I accepted that,” he said, “then it became time to let everybody know, and why not, it takes the load off my shoulders.”
Bryant said he is “at peace” with the decision.
“If I had a burning desire to continue to play, I would,” he said. “I wouldn’t be second guessing it, I wouldn’t be on the fence. I feel very solid in my decision.”
The celebration of Bryant’s career that emerged on social media and at Staples Center was in sharp contrast to the realities that faced Bryant against the Pacers.
He was 3-for-18 from the field before he triumphantly buried a top-of-the key 3-pointer with 10 seconds left that cut the Pacers lead to 104-103.
“It kind of brings back some older memories of him,” Coach Byron Scott said. “Game-winners and big shots like he’s done his whole career. So, try to go to the well another time and see if it was possible to do it again.”
Bryant finished with 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting.
We now know with certainty that this season will be Bryant’s last. It was fitting that the first game of the official farewell tour began at home, in front of the fans who watched Bryant’s evolution from an eager 18-year-old into a five-time champion.
Next on the tour: Tuesday in Bryant’s native Philadelphia.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Bryant said. “So much of my game was developed in Philadelphia.”
Scott described Bryant’s victory lap around the NBA as “definitely something that’s been coming,”
Bryant has resisted the idea of being feted as he travels city to city, being showered in love from fans.
“If anything I should be thanking them,” Bryant said. “Just the show of mutual appreciation and respect is enough. I really can’t thank the fans enough. It’s been such a motivator for me and such a catalyst for everything I’ve accomplished.”
Bryant has struggled tremendously this season. Entering Sunday, Bryant had made 31.5 percent of his shots and just 19.5 percent of his 3s.
As obvious as Bryant’s impending exit might have seemed, Scott said he was “shocked” when Bryant confided in him on Saturday night.
“I thought he probably had at least another year in him,” Scott said.
That would put Scott among the most optimistic observers.
Scott has maintained a belief Bryant will find his way out of the slump.
“This season isn’t over,” he said. “We still have a lot of games left. I know his purpose is to finish out the season.”
Bryant told his coach and former teammate that he was the first person he had told. Even Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said he was not aware of the pending announcement until Sunday afternoon.
Kupchak said the front office had prepared for the future under the belief Bryant would not return beyond this season.
“This puts an end to any speculation that he may come back for another year,” Kupchak said, “but it was my understanding all along.”
Bryant will be deservedly and endlessly celebrated over the five months that, barring injury, remain of his playing career.
But the stories flowed in earnest on Sunday, like good wine that was uncorked to honor the occasion.
“I could go all the way back to when he was just this young guy just shooting in the dark in the Forum before the lights came on,” said Scott, who mentored Bryant as a rookie in 1996-97.
Kupchak said his son, Maxwell, a college freshman, was born the night of Bryant’s NBA debut.
“So that kind of puts it in perspective,” Kupchak said.
The executive who helped build the five championship teams that featured Bryant went on to say, “He’s a winner and he came into this league with an unprecedented desire to compete and get better and be the best.
“And he remains that exact same person today. That’s with the goods and the bads that come with it.”
Fans arriving at Staples Center on Sunday were given a letter penned by Bryant, stuffed in a thick black envelope embossed with a gold “KB20.”
Bryant’s letter to fans read, in part, “Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, pleaase know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.”
The sellout crowd waited to erupt as Bryant struggled early. His first shot was a 30-foot 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock. He missed another 3, then a floater moving side-to-side in the lane.
After six misses he finally made a shot, a layup that came on a step-though move that left Pacers’ forward C.J. Miles waving his arms at a space Bryant had just been.
While Kupchak was initially surprised by the timing of Bryant’s announcement, he said it made sense given the Lakers’ collective struggles.
“We didn’t make it any easier for him,” he said, “with the group we have on the court.”
Bryant has been caught between the Lakers’ efforts to feature him and a youth movement, a dynamic Kupchak acknowledged has been “awkward.”
“There really was no other way to go about it,” Kupchak said, “and when you have a player of Kobe’s caliber that wants to continue to play, and you think he can play at a high level, you’re going to let him play until he no longer wants to play.”
That day has not yet come, but it can be now be identified on a calendar. If Bryant stays healthy, his last game will be April 13, against the Utah Jazz.
Like an amusement park attraction that draws a crowd not for its technological advances nor razzle-dazzle, Bryant’s final few years have offered a chance to revisit a previous era; to better appreciate something once taken for granted.
Great Moments With Mr. Bryant will soon close its doors.
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