An underrated aspect of professional sports is their ability to mark the time. I'm 22 years old. I've just begun to see my childhood heroes leave the game and I have started to cheer for athletes younger than myself.
I really only experienced the last couple years of Michael Jordan. My only significant Jordan memory was the game-winner against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. I remember rooting against the Bulls (I knew that underdogs were deserving of my support when my favorite team was not involved). When Jordan released the ball, I knew Chicago had one their sixth title. I didn't need to see it go in.
Kobe Bryant has been a dominant force in the NBA since I started following basketball. Unlike I do about Jordan, I remember Bryant's prime. I witnessed his evolution. I saw the highs and lows of his career. Although I am not a Lakers fan, in a weird way I grew up with Bryant.
The failed Chris Paul trade sent Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers received only a first-round draft pick in return. Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher are far past their primes. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol could be out the door.
Bynum and Gasol could be dealt for Dwight Howard. While the deal would be good for Los Angeles's future, the trade would leave the Lakers thin now. Even if the Lakers are able to land Howard, the Lakers will be stuck with a dynamic duo—a far cry from the big three in Miami or the deep squads in Chicago or Oklahoma City.
Unless general manager Mitch Kupchack can pull off a miracle, the Lakers odds of seriously competing for the 2012 title are in danger.
Where does this leave Bryant?
Bryant transformed himself from the best sidekick since Scottie Pippen to the best alpha dog since Jordan. He has been a focal point in basketball conversations since his leap from high school to the pros.
Despite playing for the NBA's equivalent of the Yankees, I cannot help but respect Bryant. He genuinely cares about winning more than being a global icon. He is a throwback to the days when stars wanted to destroy their opponents, not reminisce about their days playing in AAU. A season without Bryant calling the shots late into May won't feel right.
Recent surgery in Germany may have primed Bryant for the 2011-2012 season. He will most likely continue playing for the next few seasons. This is great, but Kobe's career is now beyond merely being on the court and posting solid numbers.
Jordan will hold the title of greatest player ever to play the game for the foreseeable future. Bryant won't wrestle it away from him. He could, however, earn recognition for the greatest career in the history of the NBA. To do so, he would need to continue playing, move up the record books, and of course, win more titles. With the current state of the Lakers, the last point seems unlikely.
Los Angeles is a desirable market for stars to play in and the Lakers are one of the most storied franchises. I'm not saying the Lakers' absence from serious contention will be long. I am worried that the Lakers will not put adequate pieces around Bryant soon enough for him to be the leader of another championship team.
Bryant's future is still infinitely fascinating. He may be capable of reinventing himself as a knockdown shooter and contribute to a winner. Or, his attitude may stay the same as his skills diminish. Either way, it will be an interesting story. Either way, it won't be as compelling as him taking charge of a team in pursuit of a championship.
I had just turned nine when the Bulls won the 1998 Finals. I didn't know why Michael Jordan's shot was sure to go in. I didn't understand that he was the best player because of his work ethic and competitive drive. At that age, sports seemed little more than natural talent and little attention was paid to off the field activities.
Although Bryant is nowhere near as great a player as Jordan was, following his career has helped me understand what made His Airness so great. Bryant wanted to win, and he believed he was his team's best vehicle to victory. Like Jordan, his fire brought out the best in some teammates and turned off others. Regardless of the criticism, there was never a doubt that the Lakers were his team during their last two titles.
In many respects, Bryant has been a far more interesting athlete than Jordan. His failures have been more pronounced. By playing next to a fellow superstar, he illustrated the the delicate balance of ego and confidence that a superstar must have. During the post-Shaq/pre-Pau Gasol years, he showed the limitations of a star in the NBA. The ability to score 81 points in a game did not ensure championship rings.
The Lakers may have already made their last postseason push with Bryant at the helm. Ends are an inevitable part of an athlete's career, but that doesn't make them any less easy to accept. He has already extend his career substantially by adopting an incredible post game while his athleticism declined. The question is whether the Lakers will extend their title window with him as their leader or try to land a younger superstar and prepare for life after Bryant.
I don't know how much Kobe Bryant has left in the tank. I don't know if the Lakers will be able to contend for the title this season. I do know that watching the Black Mamba dominate the league has been an unforgettable experience and I don't want it to be over now.
God, I feel old.