By Sherif Abdel Samad
In what is a divergence from a long career of success, Kobe Bryant, 37, has struggled over the course of the 2015-2016 NBA season, shooting 33 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
However, despite these struggles, Bryant’s legacy is grand. He is one of four players in NBA history to have accumulated 20,000 points, 6000 rebounds and 6,000 assists. He scored a career-high 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest number of points scored in a game in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point performance. He is the third leading scorer of all time, having surpassed Michael Jordan, and only trailing Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Most notably, he won the NBA championship five times with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bryant’s career began in 1996 when he chose to forego college basketball and announced that he would enter the NBA draft. It was a move many critics regarded as a mistake, as college basketball is considered vital training for young players to develop before joining the professional league. Bryant, then 18, became the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game, at that time.
And, indeed, Bryant struggled in his rookie season. Smug critics pointed that he was unready and arrogant. However, Bryant persevered and became a premier guard, replacing Lakers star Nick Van Exel.
When Phil Jackson, who had led the Chicago Bulls to six championships, became the coach of the Lakers, and alongside the most dominant centre in the league, Shaquille O’Neal, the Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive championships. However, the success would not last, as Shaquille O’Neal left the team and Bryant would wait seven years before winning another championship title.
Bryant was a player who could almost do everything. He could shoot three-pointers, dunk, play staunch defence as evinced by his nine selections to the NBA All Defensive team, and, perhaps what is his most defining feature, a fierce competitor who was known for taking high-pressure shots at the end of games.
Often compared with Jordan, Bryant equalled him in athleticism, and dominated an entire era before LeBron James surpassed him as the sport’s most recognizable face and talented player.
Since the start of the 2015 season, however, basketball fans and analysts have been watching with disbelief and awe at the fall of the aged legend, struggling consistently with his game, mirrored by the struggles of his team which has compiled only four wins compared to 20 loses.
Bryant is no longer the unconquerable superstar of his younger years. He has become vulnerable and mortal. His legs have aged; his reflexes are too slow for the faster and younger generation. And often as it is, the fall of the great generates sympathy with us, because seeing them vulnerable makes us realize that they are just humans after all.
“I just had to accept the fact that I don’t want to do that anymore, and I am ok with that,” Bryant announced on the 29th of November at a press conference. “There is so much beauty of the pain in this thing. And it sounds really weird to say that, but I appreciate really, really tough times, as much as I appreciate the great times. It is important to go through that progression. I think that is when you really learn about the self.”
Since announcing his plans to retire, every Lakers game is a sell-out. And fans from all over the country have been paying their tribute, holding up their iPhones to capture one last glimpse of Bryant.
Despite the series of losses, Bryant is receiving fanfare whenever he scores, even from the fans of the opposing team. And after playing poorly at the beginning of the season, Bryant has improved his play.
However, 15 April 2016 will be Bryant’s final game. He has made it clear. The NBA will have to find a new principal talent among a crowd that Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and LeBron James.
But Bryant is a singular talent and it will be difficult for the next generation to follow him.