Kobe Bryant, who announced his retirement on Sunday via love poem to basketball on the Players’ Tribune website, will indeed go down as one of the most divisive players in NBA history. Depending on where you sit, he’s either one of the handful of great scorers and winners, or he’s selfish and demeaning to his teammates. (Probably a bit of both?) Some people soured on him after he was arrested and charged with sexual assault in 2003, though that case was eventually dismissed. In spite of that scandal, he’s still beloved the world over: at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, he was feted by his fans in China, as some kind of Beatles/Michael Jackson combo.
Seems everyone has an opinion about Bryant, which makes him one of the more compelling athletes of our time. Here’s a safe bet: Bryant might be retiring from basketball, but he won’t disappear.
That’s either great news, or a pain, depending on your take on Bryant. He’s a student of excellence: he once spent time asking Jackson how he approached making music, and applied Jackson’s discipline to his own craft. He made a movie, Kobe Bryant’s Muse, that came out earlier this year. While the film at times lapsed into predictable hagiography, it had its raw and engaging moments. By all accounts, Bryant tinkered with even the most minute details.
He’s not the kind of guy who will just license his name to a steakhouse and not care about the food. Jordan, for example, retreated to the golf course for years. And though he eventually bought the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, he lays relatively low. Bryant’s more curious. He hasn’t played much golf — here’s hoping he avoids that jock retirement cliche altogether. Part of him wishes he went to college. During his rookie year in Los Angeles, after he decided to skip college for the pros, he’d drive around the campus of UCLA, watching kids his age have fun, wondering if he was missing out and feeling bad about himself. He wants to learn.
Bryant could write a hell of a memoir. Phil Jackson has dished on Kobe in his books. Payback time. (And watch out, Shaq). He’d make a heck of a TV analyst. He’s refreshingly honest, and has a photographic hoops memory. He’d make a good coach. He’d have to work on his patience with players, but Bryant would sweat the particulars and earn respect. If anything, Bryant has the strong voice all coaches need. Bryant will take a big swing at doing something meaningful, no matter what form it eventually takes.
His game looks shot: Bryant’s airballs are now a SportsCenter staple, like his baseline fadeaways (swish!) once were. Though even if he keeps playing badly, and joins the long line of athletes who looked like a shell of themselves in their final year —Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice — that’s quite alright. He on-court reputation has long been secured. One old-guy year gets a free pass.
Bryant’s basketball is almost irrelevant. His next act will be far more impactful.