Kobe Bryant has rarely looked this mortal.
Even as an 18-year-old, No. 8 didn't flinch when asked to throw down in a dunk contest with just two career starts under his belt.
Even as a slightly-older 18-year-old, the soon-to-be Black Mamba kept shooting despite air ball after air ball versus the Utah Jazz in the playoffs.
Even as a precocious 20-something, Kobe didn't fear the backlash of criticizing his superstar teammate Shaquille O'Neal, nor the demands to share the ball more from his six-time champion coach Phil Jackson.
Even after allegations of sexual assault, breaking a championship contender up and chasing a future Hall of Fame coach out of town, Bryant apologized for nothing and kept playing his way.
Even when the Boston Celtics physically abused his team into title submission, the newly minted No. 24 acknowledged his shortcomings, but defiantly promised to toughen up his squad.
And even as the dream team with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol saw their shaky foundations crumbling beneath them, KB pushed his body to the breaking point and even as he faltered, vowed that this wouldn't be the end.
And now, here we are. On the precipice of what could be -- what should be -- his final season, the Lakers icon is facing adversity once again.
Kobe has never looked this out of sorts. Even as a teenage rookie, Bryant was unpolished and foolhardy, but his explosive athleticism could propel him past his youthful limitations. He overcame rolled ankles, broken fingers and balky knees, compensating with unbelievable footwork, excellent ball-handling and uncanny dexterity as the years piled on. He modified his game as his quickness and agility faded, becoming one of the deadliest post players in the league as well as a marksman of a mid-range shooter. Bryant took what would could only be considered lottery-bound teams and transformed them into playoff contenders, then those playoff contenders into championship hopefuls and then finally mere NBA Finalists to two-time titlists.
Injuries over the past three years have brought us to this, his 20th year in the league. And it hasn't been great.
This has been Kobe's worst season, there's no doubt about that. Statistically, he's registering career lows across the board, and laughably so. Defensively, he's a shadow of even the player of the past several seasons, when Bryant had been jokingly referred to as a "designated hitter-type" on that end of the floor. He provides less value to his team than almost any guard in the league, detracting from the aforementioned defense, but also as an offensive player taking up valuable usage with abysmal shooting. However, nothing feels as shocking as simply watching him play.
Bryant looks like a slow motion version of himself, but it's not the laws of both space and time that are being violated, but rather the memories of the former assassin we've seen for most of the past two decades. The Mamba is so physically depleted just about all of his shots are falling flat and short. It's a combination of a complete lack of lift and an inability to create any separation from his defender. There's no explosion in his first step, resulting in what could be his worst free-throw rate over a whole season since his rookie year.
In short? Kobe doesn't look like an NBA player on most possessions.
Watching such a historically great player degrade so severely has been sad and stunning, but not surprising. Bryant has been through so many injuries over the past three seasons and has played an unprecedented amount of minutes for a man at his position. Through his twenty-year career, Kobe has never let franchise-changing maneuvers, physical limitations or outside critics bring him to his knees. No matter how bad his teams looked on paper or how dire the injuries appeared, Bryant was never humbled before the naysayers and skeptics.
The only thing that could ever humble Bryant is here. It's time.
Never before has Kobe seemed so resigned to his injuries getting the better of him. He's never sounded so downtrodden with the inexperience of his teammates and the abject hopelessness of the season. He has never played this poorly, ever, for this length of time, but conversely he's never been so placid in his frustration. But most shockingly, he's never seemed so at peace with the prospect that it could be over so very soon.
This Kobe Bryant -- this player that we're seeing haphazardly stumble through the first dozen games -- looks and sounds like a man who has finally met his match. The words out of his mouth are filled with the tones of defeat and resignation. We've said a lot about the Black Mamba over the past two decades. Those sentiments have never been amongst them.
It's been a sad, shockingly turn of events for one of the greatest players in league history. But nothing's been more surprising than a humbled Kobe Bryant.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino