They all came into our consciousness right about the same time, all three of those men whom you recognize by just their first names. In the fall and winter of 1996, Kobe Bryant was a rookie guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, a Jordanesque talent just out of high school. Peyton Manning was a junior quarterback at Tennessee and everybody’s All-American. Tiger Woods had just left Stanford to become a professional golfer — he won two professional tournaments right away and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year before the year was done.
We saw all three as young men, full of promise and possibility. Tiger’s ascent came first, and it came quickly. He won the 1997 Masters going away, exploding the entire sport. He then played golf as it had never been played before. Peyton’s rise followed — near-Heisman senior year, first pick in the draft, Pro Bowl in his second year, led the league in passing and touchdown passes in his third. Kobe came along a little bit more gradually, working his way into the starting lineup, then playing wingman for Shaquille O’Neal, then taking over the NBA with his will and stubborn insistence that no one on earth could possibly guard him.
In time, Tiger won 14 majors. Peyton set virtually every passing record. Kobe won five NBA titles and scored more points than any guard in the history of the game.
Now, inevitably, almost 20 years later, all three careers are winding down.
Who would have thought Kobe Bryant would accept the end first?
* * *
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye
And that’s OK,
I’m ready to let you go.
— From Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball.”
It’s as touching a sports goodbye as we have seen, not only because of the graceful words but because of the hard sentiment behind those words. To be great at something, anything, is, in a way, nothing more than a blatant refusal to be ordinary. It is a powerful fight against gravity. There are always doubters. There are the critics. There are inevitable mistakes, the dark impulses, the moments of crisis. There are the challengers. There are the falls.
No athlete of the last 20 years so openly tangled with the gravity as Kobe. Tiger Woods was a pure genius of his sport, a child prodigy who, through touch and feel and repetition and rhythm, built a game without weakness. He hit the ball higher and farther, straighter and with more variety. He saw geometric possibilities others could not see and executed shots others could not hit, and he always made the putt when the trophy was on the line.
Peyton Manning, meanwhile, was the most prepared player. That was his magic. He knew, before the ball was ever snapped, what everyone on the football field was going to do and how they were going to do it. Then, through a complicated series of blinding calculations that he did in a heartbeat, he knew which blitzer needed to be blocked, which defensive back leaned the wrong way, which of his receivers would be open, and what it would take to get the football down the field. He did not have the best arm, did not have the most accurate arm, did not move well. But he knew, and that was the difference.
For Kobe Bryant, it was something else. Sure, he had athletic brilliance like Tiger. Sure, he played mind games like Peyton. But it was his sheer will that marked his career. Night after night — in Sacramento and Dallas and Milwaukee and, of course, Los Angeles, with those Hollywood stars in their ludicrously priced seats waiting to be entertained — Bryant attacked. He attacked the basket. He attacked the ball-handler. He attacked weakness wherever he perceived it.
Relentless. Bryant would not stop shooting. He would not stop driving. He would not stop scoring. Five times Bryant scored more than 60 points in a game — no one in the last 30 years has done that so often, not even his hero Michael Jordan. One night, Kobe scored 81 in an NBA game. No man alive knows what that feels like.
Well, it was his insatiable will. Only nine men in the last 30 years have dared to shoot a basketball 40 times in a game. Think of the gall it takes to do that. You are on a professional basketball team featuring some of the best players in the world. All of them grew up as stars. Think of the gall, the self-confidence, the self-regard it takes to shoot the ball 40 times, to believe so deeply that whatever shot YOU have, well, it is the best shot.
You will not be surprised to know that Michael Jordan shot the ball 40 times in a game four different times, and you’re probably not surprised that Allen Iverson did it three. Those guys lived to shoot. Dominique Wilkins did it, which is, again, no surprise. Others all did it just once — David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Zach Randolph, Russell Westbrook, Chris Webber.
Kobe Bryant pumped up 40 shots in a game NINE times.
This was his chutzpah on display. It was his show, every show. It was his night, every night. It was his game, every game.
So, yes, I would have expected him to be the last of the three to see the ending. It seems only natural. But here we are … Peyton Manning talks about coming back for another season, even though his body gives him every clue that it’s all downhill and painful from here. Tiger Woods talks about being himself again even after the injuries and the missed cuts and crooked shots. You cannot blame them, of course. Manning’s mind is as sharp as it has ever been; how can he step away now? And Tiger Woods, well, golfers don’t retire, so he might as well believe that better days are ahead. Anyway, both had always found the next level. They cannot start doubting that now. I know many great athletes, long retired, who can’t help but believe just a little that tomorrow morning they will wake up with their limbs feeling surprisingly limber and their energy level peaking again..
Kobe wanted to believe, too. He began this season even after all the injuries and aches with the certainty that he had at least one more great season in him. He has stopped believing. You might say that the realization should be obvious — after all, on the emotional day of his retirement announcement he went 4-for-20, and his final shot hit nothing but air. His Lakers team is astonishingly dreadful and there’s nothing he can do about it.
But such realizations, which may look so clear to outsiders, are never clear to the player. Jordan kept going long after he was the player he wanted to be. He continued to be sure that it would all come back. Even now at times, he still talks about one more comeback. Kobe Bryant will end his career just a notch below Michael Jordan on the all-time list, but he got awfully close, closer than almost anyone else would dare.
And, unlike Jordan, he understood his mortality and knew when it was time to say goodbye.