After shredding defenses, breaking records, and winning championships over the past 19 years, Kobe Bryant can see that the clock is ticking down on his illustrious NBA career.
He has known for a while now that the 2015-16 season will be his last, having announced to the world four months ago that he is ready to step away from the game he started playing at the age of three.
But with only eight games left in his 20th and final campaign, the Los Angeles Lakers legend isn’t quite ready to accept that the end is almost here, even if it means watching the same franchise he grew up rooting for as a kid plummet to the worst record in its storied history.
“I don’t know if it will ever hit me,” he said Tuesday night about his impending retirement.
Chalk that response up to Bryant’s competitive fire, the same fiery outlook that has made the “Black Mamba” a hero in the hearts of so many Lakers fans and a villain in the minds of his detractors.
Bryant, who sat down with NBA TV host/NBA on TNT sideline reporter Kristen Ledlow in front of fans and media members at the Conga Room in downtown L.A., remained tranquil as he answered questions about the teammates who have helped pave the way for a Hall of Fame career that’s been decorated by five NBA titles, a league MVP, 18 All-Star Game nods, and two Olympic gold medals.
Sponsored by American Express, the exclusive event could have been perceived as nothing more than another stop on Bryant’s farewell tour, which has generated cheers from opposing fans rather than the jeers he has become so accustomed to hearing. But in his remaining days as a Laker, Bryant sounded like he was at peace with his decision, laughing and joking throughout the entire conversation with Ledlow.
“I left nothing on the table,” he said.
Much like what we’ve seen most this season, this was a different Kobe Bryant—not the one who had rubbed so many of his teammates the wrong way with his relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude. He spoke fondly of Rick Fox and Robert Horry, two former teammates whom he chose to join him onstage as the three of them exchanged stories and reminisced about their times together both on and off the court.
“We were extremely direct with each other,” Bryant explained. “We pushed each other.”
Out of all the teammates Bryant has had, these were the two he respected the most, an honor that has never come easily from one of the NBA’s most polarizing superstars.
"Our whole team was made up of a bunch of idiots," Bryant said of his brethren from the three-peat squads.
He commended Fox’s intensity and Horry’s unselfishness as if they were father figures, touching on their willingness to compete just as hard in practice as they did in games. And as we came to find out, he hadn’t selected them for the event only because of their drive and determination to win, but also because of their love for the game, something that Bryant says will continue with him long after he plays his final NBA game in two weeks.
“You have to continue to ask questions,” he said. “Then you can understand why things happen.”
But how will Bryant—the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer and a two-time NBA scoring champ—get his competitive fix after he walks off the court?
“By pushing his kids to be successful in every aspect of their lives,” Horry said backstage just minutes after the event concluded. “And by being the young entrepreneur that he wants to be, I think he’ll be very successful.”
I left nothing on the table.
Horry's currently working as a studio analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, opining on the worst season in Lakers history, but still staying culturally relevant thanks to Future.
The Atlanta rapper dropped Horry's name on "Seven Rings" back in early February and his Twitter mentions haven't been the same since.
"[Future] just recognizes success," Horry said.
And while the famed sharpshooter knows that his former teammate will be ready to take that next step soon, Bryant himself remains determined to “stay in the moment” as his retirement inches closer and closer, even if he recognizes it will be difficult to not get emotional when the final buzzer sounds at Staples Center on April 13.
For someone who says that he has enjoyed every twist and turn his career has taken despite it not always appearing that way, leaving the journey behind will be the hardest part for Bryant when it’s time to finally wave goodbye.
“I’m approaching it just like all the other games,” he said. “But approaching the game, that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”