OK, so you may be thinking, "Since when does Kobe Bryant's legacy need any help?"
The guy has five championships, an MVP award, two scoring titles and 14 trips to the All-Star game—not to mention, two Olympic gold medals. If all of that isn't enough to cement a legacy, then what is?
After all, Michael Jordan didn't have an especially easy time walking away from the game. It took him three tries. Yet we don't hold it against him. We've forgiven him for plenty, from a bizarre encore performance with the Washington Wizards to his personal blooper reel, also known as the Charlotte Bobcats.
The argument that Kobe should continue playing is seemingly airtight. The belief that he actually will is even more well-founded.
Barring some kind of catastrophic injury or physical breakdown, Bryant could continue playing well into his late 30s. He knows that, too. For him, this is more about maintaining the kind of focus and work ethic that accompany the highest levels of competition (via CBS Sports' Ken Berger):
"It's not about health necessarily," he said. "It's about 'Do I want to do it? Do I have that hunger to continue to prepare at a high level?' "
Berger reports that Bryant is still eying 2014 as his big finale, though the icon has refused to say anything definitive. In that scenario, Kobe would hang it up once his contract runs out, making the most of his brief tenure alongside Dwight Howard, but nothing more.
Should we take Kobe at his non-committal word?
You'd have to believe that Bryant will make his decision regardless of whether he's tied or surpassed Jordan's title count. You'd have to believe one of the most competitive players this game's ever known somehow didn't have the fire to keep playing.
Finally, you'd have to believe he could turn down one more opportunity to contend for a title with what likely will remain an exceptionally good team either way.
Even if you discount those improbable assumptions, there's a fine chance that Kobe is just adding some intrigue to the next two seasons, ensuring media relevance for his club even after the Howard and Nash hype grows a bit stale.
We saw how quickly attention switched from the defending champion Heat to the Lakers—nothing's stopping the same thing from happening to L.A. The mere mention that Bryant may be in the last throes of his career will keep a spotlight on this team no matter what happens.
Nevertheless, there's almost certainly a kernel of truth to Kobe's musings, or at least there should be.
There's a difference between the slack afforded Jordan and the standards to which Bryant will be held. Fair or not, Jordan was the original—there will always be something inherently derivative about Kobe. His style resembles Jordan's and that race for the sixth ring is, after all, a race to "be like Mike." He's played with the kind of dominant big men that Jordan had to dunk over.
No one ever said history judged things fairly. If Bryant played until he was 37 or 38, he runs the risk of being labeled a desperate ring-chaser, and the worst kind of ring-chaser at that—the one who doesn't even need a ring.
It has already taken Kobe longer to catch Jordan's all-time scoring mark. In the event he spends 19 or 20 seasons attempting to best his legacy of Finals success, you can see the narrative now: "Will Bryant spend the rest of his life trying to catch up to the greatest of all time?"
Even after his dalliances with unretiring, Jordan only played for 15 seasons, and he was 40, or close to it, for two of those. Bryant has already played 16.
There's something to be said for careers that end on time, something Kobe understands as well as anyone after teaming up with the likes of an aging, desperate Karl Malone. His real problem isn't that his competitive fire will fade. It's that it never will.
Bryant has to rip retirement off like a Band-Aid, or else he won't go through with it for another 10 years. He's the kind of guy who could find himself saying, "Just one more year," year after year, after year.
Kobe has a bright future awaiting him. He'd be wise to adopt some self-imposed term limits. Whether he wants to try his hand at coaching, bring his charisma to a television audience, or recede from the spotlight altogether, there will be life after the Lakers—maybe even an extended life with the Lakers, just in a different capacity.
You don't have to like the idea of Bryant retiring before he absolutely has to, and there are good reasons not to. But we should traverse the range of emotions that will inevitably confront us, eventually arriving at that stage called acceptance.
It sounds like Kobe may have already done just that.
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