From time to time, fans of Kobe Bryant will tell me they are thankful that I was around to cover his career.
It's a sentiment I appreciate but deflect, because as skilled as Bryant has been on the basketball court, he possesses an uncommon sense of story.
Confrontations and controversies, triumphs and tribulations—Bryant wants his career to be dramatic and inspiring. Ranking far ahead of his desire to be loved or willingness to be hated, Bryant fundamentally embraces being different.
That, my friends, is the crux of a real-life character.
So much has happened with this guy that I asked him about a decade ago—before so much more would happen—if he had any sense of what an objectively interesting life he has led.
He said it's the only life he has ever known.
The life will continue, but the basketball will end after this season. Bryant came to that conclusion recently and made the announcement Sunday.
Why declare it to the world now? Already with a camera crew tracking many of his recent moments, Bryant knows that's how the story should go—starting Tuesday with his final road game on the Philly turf that gave legs to his legend, continuing with an All-Star farewell in Toronto on Valentine's Day and finishing at home on April 13 at Staples Center against the Utah Jazz.
As self-absorbed as he can be, Bryant understands every actor needs his audience—and the production is an experience they share together. The awareness that his work is a story to be told separates his transcendence from so many others' greatness.
Tim Duncan's game has aged far more gracefully. But Bryant's connection with fans worldwide is beyond compare—and much of that is due to Duncan's disinclination to indulge the story.
No one ever thinks of Duncan as the selfish one. In this sense, he is. He prefers to go about his business and private life.
Meanwhile, Bryant's book is open. And Bryant's popularity isn't just a result of the points he has scored. The way he scores them is daring and fearless; the way he talks about them is brash and bold.
Absolutely he stole moves from Michael Jordan, but even more important, Kobe captured Michael's flair for the dramatic.
Jordan will forever win the titles talk, 6-5, but besides the all-time scoring list and basic basketball longevity in Bryant's favor, there's this: Perhaps the most timeless story in sports is playing hurt. According to the testimony of none other than Phil Jackson, Bryant took that plot point far beyond Jordan's dramatic arc, making himself a character consistently worthy of the suspense.
And now Bryant is paying the price for all that primitive perseverance—and Jordan-like relentlessness to score. The reality is that John Stockton, Bryant's only perimeter peer in permanence, didn't have to go that hard with a pass-first mindset that was amazingly artful but left far less of an individual impression.
Oh, but paying that price: Bryant's failing body is what is dictating to his mind and spirit that there is no future in this. That's why what has happened to start his 20th season is irredeemable.
Bryant, 37, got emotional just two minutes into his press conference late Sunday night, when he noted how steadfastly he still sticks to his work ethic behind the scenes.
"Even though I play like s--t," he said, his voice cracking, "I work really, really hard to try not to."
The shooting base just isn't there anymore, and there's no meditation, ice bath or German blood-spinning out there to fix that.
He might play like a know-it-all a lot of times, but no one has ever been as open to evolving in other ways. Every change Bryant made was a step in pursuit of excellence—or a return to excellence. He was his own Rocky workout montage.
The rehabs from the Achilles tendon, tibial plateau and rotator cuff were all supposed to be such steps. Turns out they weren't. He's not regaining that ground, and he knows it now.
Kobe Bryant's Muse, his 2015 documentary, ended with his saying that feeling like a failure is to him "almost worse than death."
The ongoing failure of his basketball performance meant it was unequivocally time for the career to die.
So here we are—reminded of Bryant's sense of story through a timely retirement announcement and the coming career denouement he has clearly defined (plus his poem for the Players' Tribune and reflective letter about Lakers fans inspiring him).
Bryant has offered the world context to accept his poor play, which is good for him. That he plans to spin his storytelling skill into his post-basketball business endeavors with Kobe Inc., is also good for him.
Good for us, he has provided what we needed to hear: He's not stupid; he's not sad.
He's just done, and here's where the story ends.