Kobe,

First off, let me just say that this whole open-letter thing is kinda wack. I didn’t really want to do it—especially since it’s likely you’ll never read it. (And even if you do, I can’t imagine you’ll listen to me.) But we go way back, you and me, and I thought this was the fairest approach. After all, if I’m gonna talk to you, I may as well TALK to you, you know? I don’t want you to think of this as just another media hit piece. Because that’s not my intent.

I don’t know whether you remember this or not, but I first met you at the McDonald’s All-America Game back in 1996. It was in the player’s lounge at some hotel in Pittsburgh, which was set up with TVs and video game systems and not much else. You were 18 going on 25, every bit the professional athlete you were about to become, and I was 25 going on 18, every bit the awestruck fan. I wound up mostly writing about Michael Robinson that weekend. Nice guy. Scored 11 points. Went to Purdue. Had a nice little international career. No doubt some people remember him.

It’s funny, but both of our careers in professional basketball started right around the same time. I was hired full-time at SLAM in ‘96, my first All-Star game was the same as yours, ‘97 in Cleveland. Top 50 players, remember that? It was insane for me, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you. All those legends in one place, never knowing who you were gonna bump into in an elevator or a buffet line: “Come on, Wes Unseld, are you gonna take ALL the shrimp?”

This is the tough part, though: I think your career is over. I don’t mean at the end of the season, I mean right now. Honestly, the best thing you could do—for your body, for your mind, for your family—is just to pack up that Staples Center locker, take the helicopter back to the coast, and start enjoying life as a former NBA player. It’s just not worth it anymore.

Photo by USA TODAY Sports/Jayne Kamlin-Oncea

I know, you wanted to go out on top, or at least as a contender. That’s not going to happen. Eleven games into the season, your Lakers have two wins. You’re shooting terribly from everywhere. And the longer Byron Scott tries to appease you by trying to win games, the more long-term damage he’s going to do to both your body and the franchise. Your legacy? That’s set in stone. Miss all the jumpers you want, no one can take away what you achieved. Your number (or is it numbers?) will go into the Staples Center rafters, your plaque will reside in Springfield. But it’s not just about you anymore. Let the kids play, let them learn by making mistakes and playing through them. That’s what you always wanted for yourself, right? And look how you turned out.

I can’t even remember how many times I saw you play, but it was a lot. Enough to have a really good sense of how you play. And I’ve gotten to talk to you a lot too, so I think I have a pretty good idea—as good as anyone can get anyway—of what your motivations are. Winning, obviously. But you’ve also always been a guy who taught by example, practicing hard, not taking plays off. And honestly I don’t think you’re capable of that anymore. Which is perfectly understandable. You’ve already played more minutes and more years than any guard ever. I feel like you’ve bounced back so many times from so many things that you must know that it’s just not going to happen this time.

You were one of my all-time favorite athletes to watch play, one of my all-time favorites to talk to. I’ll never forget the 2001 All-Star Game in D.C., where we got so deep in conversation pregame—I think I was asking about Stephon Marbury and the Nets, who you were set to play right out of the break—that I didn’t notice the entire media contingent gathered around waiting to get their quotes. Or how about 2006 in Golden State? There’s no way you remember this, but I do: I hadn’t seen you in over a year, and when I came out of the tunnel three hours before tip, you were the only one on the court. Literally as soon as you saw me, before I even got to the court, you called me by name and came over to say hello. I can’t remember which game it was, whether it was the one in January where you had 38 or the one in March where you had 42.

I’m not sure why I’m bringing up all this stuff, maybe it’s just some making sure you get the flowers while you can still smell ‘em. Point being you made indelible impressions, not just on me but on millions and millions of people the whole world over. That 61-point game at the Garden may have been the single most dominant game I saw in person (although ‘Bron’s 52-point triple-double* against the Knicks that SAME WEEK was close). That 62-points-in-three-quarters against the Mavericks? Dog.

Look man, I know how hard this must be for you. But you’ve gotta see it’s time. You outlasted that entire ‘96 McDonald’s class, assuming Jermaine O’Neal doesn’t give it one more try, ditto the entire 1996 NBA Draft (can you believe Kerry Kittles played his last NBA game in 2005?). You won five rings, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles and an MVP. You were first-team All-NBA 11 times, first-team All-Defense (what up, Tony Allen!) nine times. You’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And you’re still just 37 years old with your whole life in front of you. It’s hard to imagine (read: impossible) you satisfied just being a contributor somewhere, playing limited minutes, and allowing someone else to be the alpha dog.

Photo by USA TODAY Sports/Kirby Lee

You’ve said all along that you don’t want any sort of farewell tour, that the best gift anyone could give you is playing you hard. There’s one sure way to ensure the first part of that: Walk away. Right now. And don’t look back. Honestly, it’s the best gift you could give yourself.

Thanks for everything,

Russ