This time, Kobe Bryant walked off a winner.
During the second official stop of the Black Mamba Retirement Tour, the retiring legend exited Verizon Center to obligatory cheers and raised his hand in graceful acknowledgment, but this was different than Tuesday night in his home town of Philadelphia. This lovey-dovey moment was not just about appreciation but triumph, too. And a little awe.
Bryant — the 37-year-old, five-time champion who hasn’t finished a season healthy since 2012, who entered the game shooting 30.1 percent and whose skills supposedly have been mutilated — used his final NBA game in D.C. to unleash a throwback performance and create a reminder that, though he has been diminished by age and mileage, greatness never vanishes.
If Bryant’s awful start had you wondering about the worth of his final season, if it had you covering your eyes and wishing he would abandon this stubborn final act and quit now, Wednesday night offered a counterargument. In summoning some verve that even surprised him, Bryant scored 31 points — 12 of which came in the fourth quarter — and lived up to the nickname he uses to describe his agelessness, Vino.
One performance won’t change the struggle the next 64 games figure to be, assuming Bryant can withstand the grind. And even while Bryant impressed, he only made 10 of 24 field goal attempts and still shot too many three-pointers (4 for 11). But by nearly matching John Wall’s 15-point fourth quarter and leading the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers to a 108-104 victory over the Wizards, Bryant left the crowd buzzing.
He called it “a beautiful feeling” to play well and win in front of a crowd that desired one last Bryant thrill. He needed this. As much as he denied it afterward, he needed this.
“Nah, maybe writers like you [needed it], maybe,” Bryant said. “Personally, I just do my best. I don’t really need it from a confidence perspective but from figuring out my body.”
The game always wins. That’s the great thing about sports. Some players are lucky enough to master their game, but in the end, it masters them. It takes some of their skill. It wears down their bodies. It leaves them humbled.
I once covered Patrick Ewing’s final NBA season with the Orlando Magic, and I remember him trying to defend Kevin Garnett on an insolation play. Garnett crossed him over, drove past him and was laying the ball in the basket before Ewing, once a fearsome defensive player, even reacted. I once saw Ken Griffey Jr. hit .184 without a homer over the final 33 games of his career. He was accused of sleeping in the clubhouse during games, and he quit and drove home to Florida in the middle of the night in 2010.
The game always wins. Then time passes, and the inglorious endings fade, and you remember only the best parts.
So for the next 64 games, you will witness a long, multilayered balancing act for both an all-time great and a public that will spend five months dissecting his legend.
For Bryant, the challenge is to find a sustainable level of play that is less stubborn and more economic in shots taken and energy expended. For Bryant’s followers, particularly the more casual or conflicted ones, the task is to make sense of this newfound love for a vicious competitor who never sought hugs and kisses as he rumbled through a career worthy of the top shelf of the Hall of Fame.
Bryant in a nutshell: respected, not beloved.
Asked whether he has been surprised by the cheers during his first two road games after his announcement, Bryant said, “Yes. I thought everybody hated me. It’s really cool, man.”
Many of the cheers Bryant will receive all season should be akin to shaking the victorious opponents’ hands after a well-played game. Let’s not get carried away with Bryant adulation. He loved being a villain. But in the end, if you love competition, if you despise that athletes have become too chummy, then you must honor the way Bryant competed.
He has never cheated the game. He has frustrated it with some selfish moments. He has punished his own body with his relentless style. He has left you vacillating between awe and disappointment that he couldn’t tone down his style a little bit.
Bryant’s way worked, however. He became one of the best dozen or so players ever to lace up sneakers. Considering his 20 years of defiant excellence, it’s no surprise that Bryant will exit in the same manner.
Despite that 30.1 percent shooting rate from the field (20.8 percent on three-pointers), he entered Wednesday still attempting 17.6 shots per game. On a Lakers team that may be two years from winning, Bryant isn’t backing down. The young players aren’t on scholarship; he won’t step aside and let them take control. He’s struggling, but typical Bryant, he’s motivated by trying to conquer the limitations of his age.
“There’s so much beauty in the pain of this thing,” Bryant said Sunday as he explained his retirement decision. “It sounds really weird to say that, but I appreciate the really, really tough times as much as I appreciate the great times. It’s important to go through that progression because I think that’s where you really learn about the self. There’s nothing I love more than to be able to play this entire season, to be able to go through all these tough times and suit up on the road and play in these buildings for the last time. I’m looking forward to that.”
The really tough times yielded to a vintage effort on this night. Bryant walked off a winner, just like old times. For once, this long, dissimilar path to the finish felt normal.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.