Guest Post | James Chan | On Kobe’s Retirement

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Veteran guest poster James Chan shares his thoughts on Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement late last month. No intro required – I think his writing speaks for itself. You can check out James’ past guest posts here and here.

Photography by Walter Iooss Jr./The Players' Tribune

Photography by Walter Iooss Jr./The Players’ Tribune

20 seasons, 5 championships, the 81-point game, countless game-winning shots, and one legendary career later, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement at the end of this season. As with many others who watched him dominate the game growing up and struggle with injuries and Father time recently, I greeted the news with a mix of inevitability and sadness. His injuries and struggles this season made retirement a looming reality, but it isn’t any easier to take when that reality hits. To reflect, here are some of my thoughts about Kobe’s career:

As Bill Simmons said in his excellent book on basketball, every great player has a word that you associate with them. With Magic, it’s Showtime; with Jordan, it’s competitiveness; with Bill Russell, it’s winning.

The word I would use to define Kobe is craftsmanship. 

Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmen, whether blacksmiths, carpenters, or artists, dedicated their entire lives to honing a particular skill. They started learning their trade from a very young age, rising from the ranks of apprentice to journeyman to master as they put in their 10,000+ hours and perfected their creations. They were notable for their singlemindedness in learning and mastering one particular skill, and using that ability to bring marvelous pieces of handicraft and artwork to the market. 

Kobe fits the traditional definition of a craftsman to a tee. From his upbringing in Italy and Philadelphia – where he devoured tapes of Michael Jordan and other NBA stars – to the meticulous detail to which he analyzes game tape and chips away at the imperfections in his form the way Michelangelo may have chipped away at marble (highly recommend watching Kobe Doin’ Work as an example), he has treated basketball as a trade, a set of skills to be perfected and displayed to the public. While NBA legends like Magic, Bird, and Jordan were obsessed with winning, Kobe was slightly different; he definitely views winning as crucial, but he seemed to treat it less of an end in itself and more as a means to his ultimate goal of reaching basketball perfection. 

This mentality helps explain both his transcendent achievements and some of the shortcomings he has been repeatedly criticized for. It has fueled his 81-point Sistine Chapel, 50 points in 4 straight games, his masterful “Robin to Shaq’s Batman” role from 1999-2004, and his leading the Lakers to back-to-back championships. But his pursuit of individual perfection has also caused his feud with Shaq, Phil Jackson’s The Last Season, the countless times where he froze out teammates who didn’t perform up to his standards, and even this season, where he continually shoots 20 shots a game to chase a level of performance he is no longer capable of achieving. The same maniacal drive to be at the pinnacle of his profession has accounted for both the highest and the lowest moments of his career. 

Overall, however, you can’t argue with the end product, a masterpiece which rivals the achievements of the greatest artists and inventors in their respective fields. The same number of rings as Magic (and as he’s pointed out, “one more than Shaq”), more points than Jordan, 11x All-NBA first team, and most importantly, the countless highlights and memories for me and many others. 

Kobe, I’ll always remember immigrating to LA right after the three-peat and catching up via NBA DVD recaps of those championship journeys. I’ll always remember rushing back home from Banana Bay to watch the second half of your 81-point game. I’ll always remember being at Game 4 of the 2006 playoffs – still the only NBA game I’ve ever attended live – when you hit the game tying AND game winning shots against the Suns. I’ll always remember being at Sun Hong Kong where you overcame 6-24 shooting to grab 15 boards and will the Lakers to a victory against their arch-rival Celtics. And I’ll always remember you being a staple of my high school evenings, a nightly masterwork to take my mind off of school and SATs and all the sources of stress. 

Thanks for the memories, Kobe, and best of luck on your next adventure. I’m sure you’ll achieve success at success at success wherever you choose to go, whatever you choose to do. Thanks for sharing your life’s craft with us for 20 scintillating seasons.

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