The end of an era is here. April 13th, 2016 has been marked on every Los Angeles Lakers fan's calendar dating back to the day Kobe Bryant signed the lucrative contract that would see him through the final years of his career in purple and gold armor. The man who brought five championships to the City of Angels will wring out the last remaining minutes he has left buried in the depths of the aching marrow of his bones before taking his final bow.
Kobe Bryant's meant many things to many people. For some, he's an inspiration that helped fuel their own journey to the NBA. We've heard just about every player in the NBA that's 26-and-under gush about how Kobe inspired them to strive for greatness for their own hoop dreams. The tale of a high-school phenom becoming a world champion, all in front of the backdrop of Hollywood. The 20 years of his life he's spent growing in the public's eye since taking a leap from Lower Merion to Southern California have made for an incredible journey. The influence he's had on not just the game itself, but the students attending class over these last two decades, is immeasurable.
For others, he's a villain akin to Lex Luthor. The Black Mamba is a mastermind who meticulously plots every move, adhering to no agenda but his own. Every made bucket and cheer while he's been on the court have been like nails on a chalk board, with the dissonance becoming unbearable through this farewell tour. The only thing saying farewell all season has been his field-goal percentage. Perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of Kobe is how much he embraces that conflict. The doubters have been a large piece of a puzzle that's driven him to working out in gyms at god-knows-when in the morning until he felt cleansed of his basketball sins. The stories of his legendary work ethic seem to be infinite, much like how the lore of his character has only grown bolder as we've matured alongside him.
To a select few, he's a father and a husband who will finally come home after two decades of always needing to be on somebody else's watch. Vanessa, Gianna and Natalia have made countless appearances at his games this season, making sure they take in these final moments together as a family. This season is personal for all of them. His daughters only know life with the Lakers being a huge part of it, while his wife has been front row through every single high and low through the journey. Time will go on for Kobe once he hangs up the No. 24 jersey, just as it did before he ever put on No. 8, but these two decades will always be what defines his life. The sacrifices he's made on a personal level — and all professional athletes do for that matter — are easy to overlook when there's ten figures worth of salary deposited in their bank account by the time the season concludes. You can almost hear the world's smallest violins playing in the background now, but the level of commitment Kobe's given the game of basketball undoubtedly took a toll on everything around him. The affect his obsession with greatness has had is something we may never fully understand the scope of.
The one word that describes Kobe Bryant best is champion, though. Not because he has five rings that he'll be able to polish for the rest of his life and banners that will hang forever, but because of what it took for him to become that man. The relentless drive and single-mindedness to achieve greatness, adversity be damned, is what separated Kobe from the pack. His strive to personify greatness every single day. The true origin of Kobe's legacy begins with his own will to become a champion, not from highlight reels or missed threes from his rookie season.
Professional sports will say goodbye to one of the greatest athletes to ever compete and Los Angeles will say goodbye to a hero. Close your eyes and it becomes a whirlwind of memories. The game-winners. The three-peat. 81. The space-ship-looking Adidas and afro of a young man seizing the world of basketball one title at a time. The embraces with Pau Gasol. The sound of his sneakers squeaking against the hardwood as he pivots into a a fadeaway. The swish of the net and the roar of the crowd when it went in, and the groan of disappointment as the buzzer sounded when it didn't.
Bryant's final season was no fairy tale, but true storybook endings are few and far between. What we've witnessed over these last 81 games is what makes the story of Kobe Bryant so incredible, though. He's but a mortal man, just like you and I. He's not invincible, but incredibly vulnerable behind the jaw juts and fist pumps. Flesh and bone that aches for the end after being pushed to the limit. We'll write of how his heart beats purple and gold and longs for the chance at one last championship, but it's pumping the same blood as our own. Kobe pushed himself in ways we'll never fully comprehend just so he could have a taste of immortality. Just for that single moment where he's more than a mortal man, but a living legend, exalted into the rafters of forever. And now, somehow, we're supposed to say goodbye. 20 years come down to a final moment.
His name is Kobe Bryant, and he's the greatest competitor I have and will ever know. Thank you for being our muse.