WASHINGTON — Kobe Bryant announced Sunday night that this season will be his last. The announcement came before he stumbled his way to an embarrassing performance that included airballing the potential game-tying 3-pointer.
So, instead of focusing on all the great young stars of the game today in their primes, we will instead be subjected to a yearlong retirement tour for Bryant, who will no doubt be gifted various items, and lauded with standing ovations and video board tributes each time he plays for the final time in the cities around the NBA.
Bryant will be a Hall of Famer and he’ll get his day in Springfield, Massachusetts. But does anyone outside of LA really need any more pomp and circumstance than that?
If there’s ever been a time to dispose of this awful, vainglorious tradition, it’s with Bryant.
Yes, he’s won five titles and an MVP Award. Those are all worthy of celebration, and they were all duly celebrated when they occurred with citywide parades and eye-popping contract extensions.
At this point, we’re literally celebrating the celebration, which pushes us to a point so meta-self-congratulatory that we threaten to knock ourselves over from patting ourselves so hard on the back. And with Bryant, perhaps the most amour-propre filled superstar of our era, it’s particularly troubling.
By the time Bryant hangs up the sneakers this spring, he will have made more than $325 million in contracts alone, and according to Forbes has made even more than that in endorsement money in his career, pushing his earnings to nearly $700 million.
But he’s been both a financial and strategic liability to the Lakers for several years now.
After posting a stellar average PER of 24.1 between the 1999-2000 and 2012-13 seasons, Bryant has fallen off the table. He missed nearly the entire 2013-14 season, was a tick above average last year, and is downright putrid this season, shooting 30.5 percent from the floor and 20.2 percent from deep with the lowest rebound and assist rates of his career since he turned 20.
He has the worst offensive rating (97.6) of any player with a usage rate as high as he has (28.9 percent).
In plain English: he’s the primary reason the Lakers are 2-14, the worst team in the Western Conference.
There’s nothing worth celebrating about that, about a player who has selfishly pushed on past his usefulness — either unwilling or unable to recognize his own ineffectiveness.
“I could have scored 80 tonight. It wouldn’t have made a damn difference,” Bryant told reporters after the Lakers helped the Warriors set an NBA wins record by getting clobbered 111-77 last week.
Bryant said those words on a night where he shot 1-for-14 from the floor, actually scored four points, and where his team was -20 with him playing. And just in case you think those remarks might have been taken out of context, they continued thusly.
“I could be out there averaging 35 points a game. We’d be what, 3-11?”
Bryant, now one of the worst players in the league, still believes he could be capable of such things.
According to ESPN, Bryant “was hoping to avoid a Derek Jeter-like farewell tour during his final season.”
Someone looking to avoid that kind of attention doesn’t coordinate a branded handout of his poem to every fan at Staples Center the same night he drops the announcement, using the occasion as an opportunity to launch “his new ‘Hero/Villain’ campaign,” a full-court press of over-the-top branding. He doesn’t do it at the 16-game mark of the season, with nearly every road city still left on the schedule.
The announcement comes at a point in the season when even the local media has begun questioning Bryant’s motives in continuing to play. Kevin Durant, for his part, took the opportunity to trash the media for having accurately reported on Bryant’s awfulness.
“I’ve been disappointed this year because you guys treated him like [expletive],” Durant said of the media. “He’s a legend and all I hear is about how bad he’s playing, how bad he’s shooting, time for him to hang it up.”
This is an awfully naive and rich statement coming from Durant, who is a partner in The Players’ Tribune venture on which Bryant published his goodbye letter, and where Bryant holds the title of “editorial director.” The site purports itself to be a direct line from athletes to the fans, but is really just a way to polish up a story with full editorial control and a vessel for athletes to construct whatever image they and their publicists want to project. It’s an even more eye-raising comment coming from Durant when one considers the bizarre levels of access restriction that his team puts on its players, a trend profiled extensively in a Grantland article earlier this year.
Durant and Bryant are just two of those who partnered on The Players’ Tribune with Derek Jeter, the ultimate polished shell of an athlete who managed to be better remembered for the litany of gifts given to him by other Major League teams than the gifts he reportedly left with his female companions. But Jeter never had any accusation close to the one levied against Bryant.
The only truly villainous part of Bryant’s career is what happened off the court a dozen years ago, when he was charged with sexual assault in an incident in Colorado. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum (thought to be in excess of $2.5 million) before it reached trial.
While I don’t believe, as at least one person does, that the incident helped him sell more sneakers, I’m not entirely convinced that Bryant isn’t trying to capitalize on it by rewriting his own version of history.
Behold, kobebryant.com, your one-stop shop for branded merchandise with Bryant’s new Hero/Villain logo.
Perhaps the most flagrant piece here is the “Kobe Duality T-shirt,” which, the website tells us, “represents the hero and villain within Kobe Bryant.” Never mind that it’s printed in much the same two-toned look and block letters of Shepherd Fairey’s HOPE posters from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, there is a much more sinister play here. It appears that Bryant is using his own awful transgressions to brand a logo and a back story for himself, like a comic book character.
Bryant has always been an abrasive, self-serving character. He’s just gotten away with it because he used to be one of the best basketball players on earth. He’s not that anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time.
More so, he hasn’t been a hero on the court for years. Likewise, he hasn’t been significant enough as a player the past few years to warrant the title of villain, either. He ran all his best teammates out of town, only to realize that he couldn’t win without them, rendering his latter years irrelevant.
So instead of pretending that he is beloved and throwing him a retirement tour, let’s give him the parting gift he deserves. Let the gift be pasting the Lakers to the floor in each NBA city around the country for their inability to say no to a guy who doesn’t know he’s done; who insists on hucking up shot after missed shot; and who actually thinks he could go for 80 if he really wanted to, much less average 35.
Bryant’s just a malcontent with a sketchy past who nobody likes. The sooner he’s gone, the better the league — and especially the Lakers — will be.