The signals, visible for at least two full years, have become brightly lit over the past two months. Then came last Tuesday when the signs glowed like neon down a dark alley.
It’s time, Kobe. Walk away. While you can.
Kobe Bryant, as splendid and recalcitrant an athlete as we’ve ever witnessed, didn’t need to see any more. Neither did his fans. Neither did fans around the NBA, including those who walked out of Oracle Arena last Tuesday realizing the Kobe Bryant they once knew and hated and loved is confined to yesteryear.
For all the joy that came from Warriors fans after a record-setting 111-77 win over Kobe and the Lakers, there was a broad range of other emotions, mostly related to Bryant’s fading superstardom.
There was the satisfaction of retribution, for Kobe has spent the better part of two decades punishing the Warriors, usually doing so with a shake of arrogance and a pinch of sneer.
There was the sorrow of pity, for Kobe’s greatness was entirely absent. He looked like Kobe until his stilted movements unveiled the toll of injuries. He played like someone we’ve never seen. He was a man in search of his brilliant moves, once so faithful, and coming up empty.
There was, above all, an audible undercurrent of sadness as Kobe shot multiple air balls, dragged his feet on defense and was utterly incapable of saving himself from the humiliation closing in from all sides as the night went on.
“Tonight, it was just really pressure,” Bryant said afterward. “It kind of got the better of me.”
Beg your pardon? This was Kobe Almighty Bryant, one of the game’s great clutch players, a man who typically embraces any challenge, not only acknowledging pressure but also letting it defeat him.
Bryant was trapped in the kind of psychological vise that grips any aging basketball who dares to take 14 shots and make only one. It was the most miserable shooting night of a fabulous 20-year career.
“Frustration just got to me and affected the way I played and the way I shot,” he said. “Blowing coverages defensively, coming down offensively and having to constantly try moves, it just got to me and frustrated me and affected my shot.”
This was the end, an agonizingly definitive statement awaiting the falling of the curtains and the sweeping of the stage.
Like so many champions before him, Kobe confronted Father Time with the “Don’t you know who I am?” approach. He, like all the others, discovered that Papa T spares no one, no matter how accomplished you might be or how many conquered obstacles might have been overcome in your past.
Interim Warriors coach Luke Walton, Bryant’s friend and former teammate, had to pause and respond carefully when asked about Kobe’s performance last Tuesday.
“He’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game,” Walton began. “He’s used to it and we’re all used to seeing him at a level that’s above everybody or above most players in the NBA.
“It was definitely different seeing him go 1-for-14, but I try to focus on the fact that it’s still great to see him out on the court playing in that Lakers uniform, finishing his career with that team.”
Bryant on Sunday made clear, for the first time, his intention to retire at the end of this season, announcing through a poetic letter to basketball that was posted in the Players Tribune.
It’s time. Kobe has become the kind of player he once ridiculed. He’s stuck on a team that invites ridicule. That much was evident last Tuesday night, shortly after which Kobe had no choice but to see what everyone else saw.