Have We Seen the Last of Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant remains in the discussion as one of the most feared players in the history of the National Basketball Association. To date, this seventeen year vet has amassed five NBA titles, two Finals MVP awards, fourteen All-Star appearances, and a gaudy 31,700 points. The player formally known as #8 is widely considered to be one of the finest to ever lace up the high tops. Taken by the L.A. Lakers in a trade deal with the Charlotte Hornets (who had just picked up the eighteen year old Shooting Guard with the 13th pick of the 1996 draft from Lower Merion High School in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), Kobe has gone on to shatter not only records, but expectations. In a time when his Airness, the great Michael Jordan, was on the downside of his dominance, Bryant stepped right in to carry the torch.

While other NBA players are busy making their golf and vacation reservations for the day after the season ends, Kobe is busy making his reservations for the gym where he will shoot an average of 1,000 to 3,000 shots per day. He is the definition of a winner, a true champion. While the Black Mamba is not without his controversies both on and off the court, there is no mistaking that he is the guy you want when you are down by one point with five seconds on the clock in game seven of the Finals. Love him or hate him, Kobe Bean Bryant has cemented his legacy with a Hall of Fame career and an unbridled passion to win at all costs.

With that said, we may have seen the last of this legendary athlete as we once knew him. While The Black Mamba continues to defy with his desire to win, Kobe the human being is facing betrayal by the very vehicle that has gotten him here; his body. Bryant has come out on top of just about every opponent who dared to stand in his way; however, he must begin to prepare himself for the ultimate undefeated opponent, father time, and this just may be the one battle that #8/#24 will not win.

4 The Numbers (and Still Counting)

Kobe Bryant has enjoyed one of those careers where he has produced impressive numbers from the get go. Outside of his four air ball performance in the 1997 Western Conference Semi-finals against the Utah Jazz, the Mamba has done well in both the regular and post seasons. He has logged an exorbitant amount of minutes on his way to shattering record after record during his seventeen year run, and although #24 may be on the way out as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, he still has a shot at a few more buckets to add to his already ghastly totals.

Regular season: 1,245 games played, 45,567 minutes played, 31,700 points, more last second games winners than the Almighty, .454 field goal percentage, .335 three-point percentage, .838 free throw percentage, and 5,925 assists

2007-2008 League MVP

Playoff numbers: 220 games played, 8641 minutes played, 5640 points, more last second game winners than the Almighty, .448 field goal percentage, .331 three-point percentage, .816 free throw percentage, and 1040 assists

14 time All-Star, 4 time All-Star MVP

3 The Black Mamba Fears no Bullies

One way to instill fear when outnumbered in a fight is to pick the biggest guy in the group and knock him senseless. Unfortunately for the big men in the NBA, this is something that Kobe subscribes to wholeheartedly. The Chinese megastar Center, Yao Ming, came into the league under an umbrella of hype and hoopla due to his astonishing 7’6”, 311 pound frame. He was seen as the next big big man and someone who would give the most dominant, 7’1” 325 pound Shaquille O’Neal, a run for his money. In their first meeting, Kobe drove the lane, climbed up Yao Ming’s jersey, and slammed the ball down on the Chinese behemoth with the intensity of an asteroid slamming into a hapless planet.

Dwight Howard, the 6’11”, 265 pound center tells of a time shortly after he was posterized by the Mamba. A young fan came up to Dwight for an autograph and to his utter surprise and embarrassment, the kid wanted the All-Star to sign a shirt with a picture of him getting getting slammed on by #24. Howard graciously signed the shirt.

Other victims include four-time NBA champion, 6’11” Tim Duncan, Detroit’s bad-boy and king of intimidation, Ben Wallace, and even #34, the Shaq Daddy himself. Kobe sent the message to the league that it did not matter who how big you were, you were going to get the business.

However unfortunate, the past is the past. It has been a minute since Kobe Bryant has climbed up anyone's jersey, and there are fewer kids running around with Kobe posterizing shirts on. In seeing how his body is limiting even his most basic movements, we may have to rely on old SportsCenter highlight reels to experience this level of dominance again.

2 What His Peers Have to Say

In the seventeen plus years that Kobe has patrolled the hardwood, He has battled hard with and against some of the greatest basketball talent on the planet earth, and along the way, has earned their respect. Through his superhuman feats, the Black Mamba seems to come up large when he needs to and has never shied away from taking the biggest shots in the history of taking big shots.

Sports Illustrated recently conducted an anonymous poll of NBA players as to who they believed should have the ball in their hand when it counted the most; their response, #24. According to SI, “74% of the 166 players surveyed said Kobe followed by Kevin Durant (8%), Dwyane Wade (3%), and Ray Allen/Dirk Nowitzki (2% each).” Even with this amount of elite NBA support, some understand that Kobe is at the mercy of both his body and his age.

On Kobe's recent injury issues, the other Jordan heir apparent, Lebron James, commented, "We all got to go some time," James said. "None of us can play forever." When asked who he thought was the best player in the National Basketball Association, his actual Airness, Michael Jordan, weighed in by saying, ”It’s hard to pick. It’s hard to say the best player,” Jordan told the Associated Press in an interview. ”You would have to say LeBron because of what he’s capable of doing. Kobe is coming off an injury and you don’t know where he is going to be at his age. I would have to say LeBron.” This commentary from his peers shows that we may have seen the last of the great Black Mamba as we knew him.

The Greatest and the Most Dominant

Any conversation about the career of Kobe Bryant must include the man that helped get him there, the Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq and the Mamba both arrived with the Lakers in 1996, and it wasn't four full years before they had their first of three back to back NBA titles. Shaq and Kobe were the best one-two punch in the league since Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen, but unfortunately for Lakers fans, they would not enjoy the same positive relationship or ultimate success of Jordan and Pippen. While this dynamic duo of #8 and #34 had the potential to obliterate every record of their Chicago Bulls peers, it was not to be the case. After years of petty bickering, Shaq was unceremoniously pushed out of Lakerland by the very purple and gold that he helped put back on the map after so many years of mediocrity. Now with the possibility of a 35 year old, very physically limited Kobe Bryant on a rebuilding team of other, oft-injured old men, the Mamba must wonder as to what things could have been if he and Shaq were able to employe some maturity and remain together.

1 Body Betrayal

Kobe Bryant has been fortunate as far as his history of serious injury is concerned. We do not have to look at his career and wonder what could have been as we have had to do with the likes of Tracy McGrady, Greg Oden, Yao Ming, and Grant Hill. Kobe has enjoyed longevity and health during his almost two decades on the hardcourt; something that is especially impressive considering the extra wear and tear from the added 220 playoff games he has taken part in. However, it would appear as if father time has caught up with the fourteen time all-star with the recent knee fracture, coming on the heels of a devastating Achilles rupture. These issues may not be such a concern for a man in his early twenties, but Bean Bryant is closer to 40 than 30.

In our advancing years, the body does not adjust to injury as well as it used to. According to the Bone and Joint Journal, “In skeletal-mature individuals it has been suggested that advancing age has a significant impact on skeletal repair. Studies of fracture healing in rats have shown that the formation of cartilage and bone, and cartilage resorption, were delayed”.

We are seeing this in Derek Jeter, the legendary yet aging shortstop of the New York Yankees, who shares similarities with Bryant; they are both franchise superstars and world champions in their 30’s, and they have not been significantly slowed by injury. However, last year, baseball fans saw the ambassador for the game play in only seventeen contests due to a serious ankle break. Upon his attempted return during the season, he was felled by another injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the MLB campaign.

The only difference between the two legends now is that Jeter has recognized at the age of 39 that it is the right time to hang up his cleats and famous #2 jersey, and get on with the business of counting his money and moving through more supermodels. One must wonder if the player formally known as #8 will follow suit?

Many may argue that The Black Mamba will rise above and live to fight another day, but this may be more fantasy than reality. We may have seen the end of the great Kobe Bryant as we knew him...

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