There aren't that many retirements in sports that fundamentally change the game once their departure becomes finalized. Most ride off in to the sunset well past their prime, once injuries have set in and the game has passed them up. When Jordan retired, people knew it was time. His contributions to the game were well documented, but also long behind him. The same goes with Shaq, and Steve Nash, and any all-time great that has come and gone over the past decade or so. The same will be said once Duncan and Dirk decide to hang up the high tops. Most expected Kobe Bryant's farewell tour to be just that. A quiet ride off into the sunset, filled with "remember whens" and "where does he stands". For the first part of the season, it appeared to be exactly what we expected. The old vet squeezing out his last bit of greatness in a hard to watch final act. Nobody thought that the retirement of Kobe Bean Bryant would mean so much to the game of professional basketball, but then came Mamba Day. Yesterday, we saw that Kobe may be a relic - the old beat up muscle car covered in rust and dents - but down deep, once you look past the superficial, you knew there was a motor that can't be matched by anything this new generation of product could possibly put out.
Today, most people are - understandably - wrapped up in the way that Kobe went out. The fairy tale career ended in story book fashion. With Kobe being Kobe. However, as much as I was engulfed in the flash of all time greatness that was all too familiar, but yet all too distant, The most impactful moment in my eyes was watching the swarm of former teammates embrace him after his run was through. Generations of Lakers that had come and gone, the once young faces turned old, that Kobe had outlasted. Names like Rick Fox, Big Shot Bob, the ageless Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, and yes... Shaq Diesel. These guys were household names that I grew up with, watching fierce playoff series with the (then good) Kings, Suns, Spurs, and Celtics. These guys represented the last era of NBA basketball that legitimately felt good to watch. They were the fossils of ultracompetitiveness, the remnants of historic rivalries, and most importantly, the last generation of grown man basketball.
It is inarguable that the last 10 years of professional basketball has been plagued with an all around softening that has made the game - quite frankly - hard to watch. We are now in the age of AAU driven, fundamentally unsound, buddy buddy basketball where acting jobs are rewarded, defense is frowned upon, and the greatest stars in the league refuse to compete against each other. That is not the league Kobe Bryant was brought into. At 18, Kobe was forced to grow up quick. When he was drafted into the league, the team didn't cater to him, guys like Nick Van Exel , Eddie Jones, and his now-coach Byron Scott were well established vets who were deeply embedded in the 90's era basketball mentality. He played against the Payton's, Miller's, Ewing's, and Jordan's. Hard fouls were commonplace. The lane was forbidden territory, and a slick word or two would get you chin checked - which Kobe found out.
As most of those guys moved on, and the league softened, Kobe remained the constant. Throughout all of the championships, the accolades, the records set, that competitive nature of 90's basketball never subsided. As of recently, there weren't very many of those guys remaining. One of my favorites was Kevin Garnett. KG maintained the same level of intensity throughout his career that made him the poster child for on court aggressiveness. Every opposition team was treated as if they just attempted to walk into his childhood home and rob his mother. His sideline and on the court conversation was Rated-R, he talked more shit than most - even managing to tell Carmelo Anthony his wife tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios, and when Ray Allen left the Celtics, KG deleted his contacts out the phone and added him to the list of mortal enemies. To this day, mentioning Ray's name to KG might get you cursed out - or worse. KG is probably gone in the very near future... and now, so is Kobe
Kobe Bryant was - and is - that kind of dude... the consummate competitor. He was the awesome kind of selfish that is lacking in the league, and most likely, is gone for good. If evidence is needed, look at the cycle of stars that have come in and out of the Laker locker room. Kobe wasn't the kind of guy to recruit stars from other teams just to win rings, he hated playing with the stars he already had. He didn't try to turn the young players into little brothers... he put them in their place, set out the rules and expectations and held them accountable. When the young generation of superstar tried to test him, he let the asshole out. Kobe didn't care about friends, didn't seek out homies to have summer training slumber parties, and stuck with his team through the good and bad times - as much as he may have wanted out. He has a zero-tolerance policy for the bitchassness that oozes through the pores of the league today. Many saw his frame of thought as a fault. Me, I saw that as a virtue. Now that he's gone, he leaves an emptiness that can't be filled.
What we are left with is a generation of passive aggressive, attention seeking, subtweeting, immature furby dolls. The type of guys that throw their teammates under the bus and secretly tape them on social media. The type of guys that lack loyalty and work ethic. The type of guys who seek out help rather than place the team on their shoulders. There are no more Kobe's out there. Sure their are guys with comparable talent, sure there are guys with comparable bank accounts, and sure... there are guys in the league that - when their time to walk away comes - they will be compared to the all-time greats. However, the mindset that Kobe has, the competitive nature that he displayed... that will never be matched again. I can honestly say that the game of basketball will never be the same now that Kobe Bean Bryant has walked away.