As his latest and greatest of his opposite field singles dribbled into the hands of Baltimore Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis on Thursday night, Derek Jeter rounded first base as his neck snapped to his left. He stared with rapt attention as pinch runner Antoan Richardson raced home and barely beat out Markakis's laser throw from 250 feet out. Jeter had singled home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, ending his career at Yankee Stadium with a walk-off, opposite field single in the clutch. No, there was nothing really on the line here except for a meaningless late September win. However, one of the greatest competitors in the history of North American professional sports left the stage on his own two feet as a walk-off winner with a hit that exemplified his entire career.
Now, let's pay no nevermind to the fact that Jeter played both Saturday and Sunday in Boston, though his last at-bat yesterday was an infield single. What the Yankees shortstop will always be remembered for is surely his grand finale at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. As the latest major market sports star retires after a glittering career, it brings into clear focus the same exact scene we could be seeing two years from now when our own Kobe Bryant hangs up his sneakers for good.
Lakers season preview
Lakers season preview
As I've written in the past, the parallels between Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant are eerie. The two began their careers in the mid-nineties, each of which elevated not only to All-Star heights, but global superstardom. Both men quickly became the faces of their sports, each playing for the crown jewel franchises of their respective leagues. However, beyond all the accolades and hardware, both players are renowned and respected for a remarkably similar will to win. That, more than anything else, ties these two athletes together. However, let's look at the tale of the tape:
Jeter won his first title in 1996, with his second, third and fourth coming in an epic three-peat from 1998-2000; in the last of these, he won World Series MVP honors. He would taste defeat in epic fashion twice after that, losing in a seven-game classic to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and then the Florida Marlins in 2003. It would be almost a decade between his next and final championship, as the Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series. In between all the championships and postseason appearances (in which he only missed the playoffs a scant three times in 20 seasons), Jeter rocketed up the MLB and franchise record books.
Kobe's resume is startlingly similar. Bryant won his first title in 2000, right before Jeter's fourth. Kobe would then win two more titles in a three-peat, becoming a multi-time All-Star along the way. The Lakers would make the Finals two more times after Bean's initial epic burst of success, in a shocking defeat to the Pistons in 2004 and a physical domination at the hands of the Celtics in 2008. Bryant would win his fourth title in, oddly enough, 2009, with his fifth coming in 2010. In between all the championships and postseason appearances (in which he only missed the playoffs a scant two times in 18 seasons), Kobe rocketed up the NBA and franchise record books.
As both men have wound down their careers, they both suffered debilitating leg injuries, one which cost Jeter all but 17 games two seasons ago and Kobe all but 6 last season. The shortstop rehabbed, but in his final season at age 40, was clearly a shell of the player he once was. He completed career lows across the board as his defense badly suffered from a lack of mobility.
However, in his final week as a Major Leaguer, Jeter seemed to make us forget his mediocre season and somewhat embarrassing goodbye tour that was exploited for every last penny by his club. He finished his last game at home in epic fashion, following it up by trotting off the field in Boston with the latest of his 3,465 hits (good for sixth all-time). It was a spectacular finale that made almost all of us forget a last year that did not at all exemplify the rest of his fantastic career. Considering the parallels between the two players, I couldn't help but think about Kobe Bryant every time another Derek Jeter Sportscenter shoutout crawled across my screen.
Kobe has made no secret that these next two years of his contract will most likely be his last. As he fights back from leg injuries of his own, he will join a Lakers team that badly needs him to be great in order for them to compete for a playoff spot, let alone a championship. Aside from rosy reports we've been hearing from GM Mitch Kupchak and other Lakers insiders, there's really no telling how Bryant's body will respond after a year and a half riddled with injuries. Along with his age (36 as of August), mileage (now in his 19th season) and of course, a supporting cast that leaves much to be desired, Kobe's statistical line for this upcoming season could range anywhere from All-Star levels to relatively pedestrian. There is truly nothing that would surprise me at this point, as both Bryant himself physically as well as the team he's coming back to is worlds different than the one he left at the end of the 2012-2013 season.
But let's move to two years from now. Like Jeter, Kobe will be completing his 20th year in the big show. Unlike Jeter, it will actually be closer to being his 23rd season, as he'll have played close to three extra seasons worth of games when you consider all his playoff experience (Jeter played in an equivalent of one extra season when the playoffs are considered). Let's blow past a comparison to Derek's mediocre final season; in terms of 38-year-old guards, there isn't a lot of historical precedent that emboldens me to expect the same greatness that we've come to expect from Bean (Michael Jordan scored 22 a game for the Washington Wizards, but at just 41% shooting for a non-playoff team).
At that age and mileage, Bryant would have to break historical precedents in order to truly become a cornerstone player for the Lakers. Expecting an All-Star performance from Kobe two years from now, just like Jeter in his 20th season, is simply not realistic. Yes, the fans came in droves to see Jeter play, and yes, the team's entire season-long marketing campaign was predicated around Derek Jeter, the shortstop, on the field nearly every day. We just watched Derek Jeter slough through his last year, with his coach putting him out there day after day when his performance didn't necessarily dictate that. I can't imagine it'll be any different in Kobe's goodbye season.
Ultimately, what we just saw from DJ is what I see as a best case scenario for Kobe. I see a contributor on the court, though far from the team's best player and in fact, a guy who might be hurting his team by being on the floor at times. Just as we spent 162 games debating whether or not the Captain was costing his squad wins with poor defense and under-average hitting, we'll be doing the same with Kobe's already listless defense and questionable shot selection. Day after day, Yankee fans came into my office after hitting the Stadium for their Jeter goodbyes, shaking their heads in disbelief at just how far the Captain's game had degraded. I shudder at the thought of the same, disillusioned looks from Lakers Nation two years from now.
The best case scenario very well may be watching Kobe shuffle through a mediocre final year for a non-playoff team, but ending it with the same flourish from DJ over the past couple weeks in the Bronx. Multiple curtain calls. Standing ovations lasting 10 minutes. Salutes from his most hated enemies in Boston and across the country. A buzzer beating shot in his last home game.
There are many who will tell me that I'm just a pessimist. A hater. A cynical, New York-based writer inundated with the daily ebbs and flows of another iconic player hanging them up for good. An idiot who doesn't know I'm talking about Kobe Bean Bryant.
As I'm writing this, I also think about what has linked the two players for 20 years: a seemingly indomitable competitiveness that consistently drives them to work harder than almost all of their peers to be the best. A will to win that nearly every peer, coach and front office executive will mention when asked for their first impressions.
But then I also think: how did that will serve Jeter in his last season? Could he will himself past the ravages of time? Could he will his team to the playoffs? Could one of the greatest players in the history of his great sport will himself to be better than his 20 seasons would dictate he be? The answer, inevitably, was no. The will to win from one of the greatest of all-time meant nothing when challenged by the ticking hands of the clock. Why should Kobe be any different?
There was a sign in the crowd in Boston this past weekend that indicated we should all be happy for what we've experienced with Derek Jeter, not to be sad that he was leaving. We just watched one of the greatest of all time finish his career in an epic fashion that we'll surely tell our children about, after a difficult final season. It wasn't storybook in its totality, but ended on the sweetest, most realistic note.
We should only be so lucky when our icon, our legend, our hero, decides to ride off into the sunset.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino