Ding: Why Kobe shouldn't retire anytime soon
Kevin Ding column: Based on his estimate, Lakers star Kobe Bryant could be nearing retirement by this time next year, and what a terrible waste that would be.
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LOS ANGELES – Game 1,440 was not unlike the others.
The Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night. Counting the playoffs, it was Kobe Bryant's 1,440th NBA game.
And Bryant was great again.
Not just pretty good. Not just flashes of greatness.
Artfully, inspirationally, intensely, winningly great.
So great ... and yet not particularly greater than he was in Dallas a few days back, or the game before that with 29 after halftime to beat Portland, or when he twice had 14 assists in back-to-back victories over Utah and Oklahoma City in late January, or the time his fanatical prep work and relentless chasing left Brandon Jennings certain no one in the history of the game had ever defended a point guard that well (and also had 31 on 12-of-19 shooting and six assists), or all of December with Bryant's 33.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists across the board higher than he has averaged in any month in any year of his career.
The Lakers' day-to-day struggles have obscured the work of art that Bryant has erected over the past four months with those bent and battered fingers and his usual common-man tools of hard work, fundamentals, dedication and desire.
For someone with a particular interest in advertising, Bryant ought to understand that what he has built is actually more like a billboard – with a sign he cannot, must not, miss.
And it says:
Retirement should not even be on Kobe Bryant's radar.
The legend exists because Bryant has refused to leave bullets in his chamber. And ending his career with so much more gift to be given would be flat-out wrong for a man whose inner underdog spirit has carried him much further than his obvious genetic gifts.
If Bryant is true to himself, he won't retire in a year or two.
"What do you want to be remembered for some day?" Bryant was asked in August via USA Basketball's Facebook page.
"I'd like to be remembered as a person who overachieved," Bryant answered. "I have natural abilities and talent. I would love to be remembered as a person who maximized that potential and did everything he possibly could to see his talent through."
That's what matters far more than the smoothest possible finish to Bryant's wine.
Everything Bryant does these days is framed by his age, as seen by his Benjamin Button references earlier this season and him Tweeting late Thursday night about loving a new nickname he was given: "Vino."
Getting better during his youth was what Bryant expected and demanded of himself; getting better with age is what a more mature palate truly savors.
And Bryant is enjoying it. He said Sunday in Dallas that he is enjoying this "more than ever." He is pushing back – only after the proper stretching given his age – against Father Time the very same way he has insisted on beating every doctor's recovery timetable for every injury he has ever had.
But Bryant, 34, is getting pretty specific with his retirement estimate. His contract expires after next season. He said recently about his retirement plans: "I'll be 35, 36 years old. I'm not just going to sit and do nothing."
Bryant said before the season he knew what his next career might be, but he wasn't ready to share it publicly. Whatever it is, Wright Thompson's stirring portrayal of Michael Jordan's unsatisfying retired life for ESPN The Magazine – "Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball" – looms as further reminder that Bryant had better not sell his career short.
"He has the gift and the curse of having gone first," Bryant said. "I have the gift and the curse of having gone second. I get a chance to watch and learn from things that he's done. The good and the bad."
Bryant also feels Jordan is not his equal in one interesting sense.
"M.J. retired a couple of times. Just 'cause it's a lot. It's a lot," Bryant said before this season. "I mean, I've been playing 17 years straight. That's a long run, not taking any breaks."
And there Bryant was at a largely deserted Staples Center on Thursday, on the floor three hours before game time, just doin' work. It was the Lakers' only game in a five-day span, which to many would've meant a chance to do less – and to Bryant was a mandate to do more.
Nuggets coach George Karl had it right when he said the other day about Bryant: "Mentally, if he were to lose that edge, I think his skills will probably follow." That's where Bryant is afraid he is slipping: It is getting harder for him to do all this work – and just like a lot of you with high integrity in far less visible and celebrated jobs, Bryant only wants to do this if he can do this right.
For now, though, watching him closely during this game that matters now but will ultimately be impossible to remember separate from the other 1,339 ... it's still uber-competitive Kobe.
The determination to humble a younger, stronger player trying to guard him and gain at his expense.
The look in Bryant's eyes that shows he views Minnesota's zone defense as some personal insult to his jump shot.
The four-letter word he mutters after misjudging his opponent's drive toward him and failing to draw the charge or block the shot.
The private steaming and shaking his head on the bench as the fourth quarter begins, still dwelling on the turnover he committed late in the third quarter, even though he'd redeemed it with a bucket on the final possession and the victory already was essentially secure.
It's all the same as it ever was.
And even if that is more draining than it used to be for Bryant to maintain, it's also proof he still embraces the challenge.
What will Kobe be like when there is no more elbow sprain to shake, no 3-point slump to break out of, no technical-foul-suspension assumption to destroy, no next ring to win?
He says he has always done everything in life early, which would indicate he's willing to retire early, too.
But this is different. This will be turning himself off at the energy source.
No matter how interesting the next chapter seems to him now, that is too precious a natural resource to waste.