"So, what's new?" Kobe Bryant greeted a packed room of reporters quickly assembled to greet the NBA's biggest traveling superstar of the past two decades. His straight face immediately cracked, and the room joined him in a quick chuckle.
On Sunday, Bryant finally ended the unofficial farewell tour to launch the official farewell tour. Was Sunday the end? What it the beginning of the end? No, Sunday night still looked to be about 66 games shy of Kobe Bryant's end goal, and most of those games (like Sunday's game) expect to be losses. But, Bryant finally publicly shared that 2015-16 would be his final lap on the NBA tour.
"I had to accept the fact that I don't want to do this anymore," Bryant told an overcrowded assembly of television and newspaper men and women. "And I'm okay with that. Once I accepted that, then it became time to let everybody know. It takes a load off my shoulders and everybody else's."
Why break the news now? In Spanish, Bryant said that he knew in his "corazón" (heart). Could he possibly see a future outside the NBA, perhaps in Italy? Bryant spoke about his body and said, in Italian, "non posso" (I cannot).
In English, Bryant pointed to meditation as the driving factor in revealing his need to shift forward to the next chapter. Simply, his mind did not gravitate to basketball with nearly as much obsession as it had in year's past.
This is the final season. Bryant made it official, and the Lakers will be a traveling circus of no. 24 shooting often and playing as many minutes as his body allows. Why? If Bryant cannot go out shooting and missing, then who can? He won five titles making impossible shots, so now he gets the privilege of shooting air balls if he wants to. Sunday's loss to the Indiana Pacers provided the best example of what the final 66 games promise: Bryant hit a late three to give the Lakers a chance at tying the game with the clock running down. One air ball later, reality sunk in, the Lakers lost and the need for the post-game press conference became all the more apparent.
According to no. 24, Michael Jordan had been one of the first people he spoke with over the summer. What advice did no. 23 offer? "Just enjoy it. No matter what, just enjoy it. Don't let anybody take that away from you. No matter what happens: good or bad. Enjoy it."
The Lakers are 2-14 and Bryant is shooting 30.5 percent from the field and 20.2 percent from beyond the three-point line. So far, it's been bad significantly more than it's been good. However, the "triple O.G." tends to answer questions graciously, entertains nostalgia and even acts jovial with the media. When Bryant is on the road, that acceptance of historical perspective over the sad present state of the Lakers' roster exponentially increases, as he is friendlier and more available than even at Staples Center. That graciousness goes double with the road fans.
In New York, Bryant felt the "MVP" chants and heard the arena begging him to shoot every time he touched the ball. In the two Florida cities, Bryant didn't play due to a bad back. Still, the fans that came out did not jeer or berate the star for sitting out. Instead, they cheered him into and out of the arena. In a slightly surprising post-game press conference for a game in which he did not play, Bryant tried to keep a straight face when he explained that he had missed the game in Miami because, well, he's old and his back hurts. He chuckled slightly as he delivered the punch line on that occasion, too.
In Dallas, Bryant got a line of handshakes and hugs as he left the court for the last time. Now, Philadelphia is next. As much as he claimed to love being a villain and wished to avoid the farewell tour, Bryant understands that the farewell is more for the fans than it is for him. In Spanish, Bryant answered a question about the timing of the announcement by stating, "I want to play in Philadelphia and other cities with much love. I want to say thanks for everything."
While Bryant spoke of internal meditation providing the first sign that it was time to move on, he could not altogether ignore the external factors, i.e. the fans. Seemingly, the fans knew before Bryant made it official. With crowd acknowledgments on his way off the court in seemingly every city, Bryant making his retirement timeline official paved the way for the upcoming eight-game road trip to become a celebrated affair, rather than the reality that the Lakers expect to lose the majority of games--conceivably all of them.
If the Lakers don't beat the Philadelphia 76ers, this team could well return to Los Angeles in mid-December with a record of 2-22. Starting Tuesday, the Lakers play eight games in 12 days. Including the back-to-back that Bryant completed on Sunday, those numbers total to 10 games in 15 days. Knowing Bryant, he'll try to play in every game.
"There's so much beauty in the pain of this thing," Bryant philosophized at the podium. "It sounds really weird to say that. I appreciate the really, really rough times as much as I appreciate the great times, and it's important to go through that progression. I think that's where you really learn about the self. "
Yup, a 37-year-old Bryant sounds like he wants to play every possible game. Likely, he'll miss a couple, but if he can lace up his shoes, he's going to try and play. And, miss or make, he's going to keep shooting because he sees the beauty in the pain. Fans of the team probably see a bit less beauty in the missed shots, but hey, the guy did go to seven finals and win five titles. Also, he scored 81 points in a game once, so he's entitled to take a few bad shoots in his last season, right?
"There's nothing I love more than being able to play this entire season, to go through all of these tough, tough times, to be able to suit up and play on the road and play in these building for the last time," Bryant confirmed. "I'm looking forward to that."
Asked what Tuesday in his hometown of Philadelphia would feel like, Bryant said with a grinning smile, "It's going to be beautiful."
Clearly, Bryant is talking about his experience with the fans, not the basketball on the court. Seeing as the Philadelphia 76ers are 0-18 and the only team worse than the Lakers, Tuesday's game could be the least watchable game of the NBA season.
Like a child lost in a daydream about going home for Christmas, Bryant repeated, "It's going to be beautiful."