HANG TIME, Texas — There’s never a shortage of funny stuff being tossed around on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” But Kobe Bryant didn’t seem to be joking when he told the host and that he would be retiring “soon.”
Of course, that’s only natural talk for a 34-year-old who has literally spent half his life playing in the NBA.
Yet it didn’t stop the loud groans of displeasure coming from the studio audience in Hollywood.
Bryant grinned and reminded that it would be nearly two decades of competing — and in his case, that means running, jumping, dunking and trying to chew the legs off his opponents — by the time his current contract expires after next season. He laughed and noted that he entered the league 1996 with a full Afro and now couldn’t grow one if he tried.
Certainly we all seem to understand that he can’t keep up the Black Mamba routine forever. Then along comes a night like Wednesday in New Orleans, when he makes 14 of 21 shots and finishes with 42 points,12 assists and seven rebounds in leading the Lakers back out of a 25-point hole to beat the Hornets.
After all, he still does rank third (27.6 ppg) in the league in scoring, behind only Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony and, perhaps more impressive, tied with the 24-year-old Durant in total minutes played (2,370).
We keep watching him push the boundaries, test his own limits and try to drag this collection of disparate Laker parts into the playoffs sometimes with the sheer force of his own will and tend to forget that he might have logged more miles than some of the now-retired space shuttles.
Bryant says he will not play for any team other than the Lakers, which would force major concessions or restructuring of his salary (and maybe the entire Lakers organization) if he decides to continue on beyond 2013-14. The club is intent on lowering payroll below the luxury-tax plateau and Bryant’s contract calls for $30.4-million next season. How much of a discount would he give the Lakers to keep chasing championships alongside or maybe without Dwight Howard?
Even if he got his sixth NBA title sometime by June of 2014, how hard would he chase No. 7 in order to pass Michael Jordan?
Then again, the driven man who has modeled so much of his on-court aura around Jordan surely understands that he will never again be able to come close to feeding his competitive fire the same way again once he steps off the court for good.
You know that Bryant surely read Jordan’s recent interview with Wright Thompson in ESPN the Magazine where the 50-year-old said: “Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”
Maybe he is much closer to the end than we realize after watching all that he still can do in driving himself for 42 minutes to keep the Lakers’ playoff hopes alive in a critical game in New Orleans.
The only other question left is who’ll miss Kobe more when he’s gone: his fans or the ones who root against him?