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Kobe Bryant: Should He Retire in His Prime or Play Until a Shell of Former Self?

William Van NollFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2011

Kobe Bryant's former running mate, Shaquille O'Neal, recently retired after playing for five different teams after the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant's former running mate, Shaquille O'Neal, recently retired after playing for five different teams after the Lakers.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Put the pitchforks and the burning torches down. Kobe Bryant is not even close to retiring. The 32-year-old all-world basketball legend still has plenty of business to take care of and is most capable of adding a few more NBA championships above his fireplace.

But Father Time spares no man, not even a superhuman like the Mamba.

So when the time inevitably comes, when the burden of age noticeably catches up to the perennial All-Star and his competitiveness and desire to win becomes overshadowed by earthly abatement, what should No. 24 do?

History can serve as a guide.

As with most debates involving Kobe Bryant, the barometer of choice is Michael Jordan.

Jordan retired twice. First at the age of 35 in 1998 after winning his sixth NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls and again at the age of 40 in 2003 after returning with the Washington Wizards.

Jordan's Favre-like return was met with fanfare and was considered a victory lap for one of the greatest of all time. Competitively, Jordan was a shell of his former, dominant self.

This did not go so far as to tarnish the amazing career of His Airness, but Jordan's last stint with the Wizards could have easily been forgotten. He did not have anything left to prove as his legacy was already sealed as one of the all-time greats.

Would Kobe Bryant playing as a shell of his former self impact his golden legacy?
Would Kobe Bryant playing as a shell of his former self impact his golden legacy?Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Another comparison of a superstar extending his playing life past physical decline is the recently retired Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe's former running mate.

Shaq retired at the age of 39. After winning his fourth NBA championship with the Miami Heat, Shaq bounced from team to team looking to provide limited minutes for championship contenders, playing for the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and arch-rival Boston Celtics.

His latter four years were more of a spectacle for Shaq, making an impact off the court in these new locales instead of truly contributing to the team's success on the court.

Like Jordan, the push to play past his prime did not tarnish the Diesel's unbelievable career, but it certainly did not add to it.

Kobe has an opportunity to choose a different path.

The Mamba can do what these two other men couldn't—finish his playing days and retire with the same team that drafted him.

Retiring as a Laker would speak volumes in the years after Kobe hangs up his work boots. For all the in-fighting and competition that existed between them, Kobe can earn a distinction that Shaq never could—"loyal."

Only Kobe knows how long he's capable of playing at an elite level. But when the time comes, Kobe should retire a Laker.
Only Kobe knows how long he's capable of playing at an elite level. But when the time comes, Kobe should retire a Laker.David McNew/Getty Images

Kobe can also take solace in knowing he remained loyal to the franchise that afforded him the opportunity to seek greatness, and the organization can give their unquestioned gratitude to the player that brought them such overwhelming success.

When the time comes, Kobe should go out as a Laker. The only question that remains is when.

As we've seen throughout his career, a less-than 100 percent Kobe, ailed by an assortment of injuries and setbacks, is still better than the vast majority of NBA players.

His ability to overcome the adversity that comes his way, including physical limitations, is astonishing and something that makes No. 24 top of his class.

So when Kobe continues to play at an elite level well into his late 30s and even 40s, don't be the least bit surprised. Even at the end of the rope, Mamba still writes the book.

But unlike other books, Kobe's story has the chance to be retold and recanted under one roof—the House that Kobe built—something that can resonate loudly and brightly in the halls of basketball history.

No epilogue. Just a glorious end to an unbelievable career.

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