There’s a thin line between honoring a legend and making a mockery of the game.
Retirement tours are susceptible to falling on the wrong side.
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are just the latest example. The ultimate case occurred two years ago when Derek Jeter capped his 20-year career with a farewell tour that felt nearly as long.
Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving also enjoyed notable goodbye treks.
To be honest, I see the appeal. Loads of cool gifts are received. And it’s one last chance to bask in admiration from opposing fans and players. In Bryant’s case, experiencing so much love on the road is brand-new. His final visit to Chicago was more of the same, from the video tribute, to the special starting-lineup announcement (delivered by former teammate Pau Gasol), to the hand-written signs, the “Ko-be!” chants and the extended ovations.
“I’m at peace, extremely at peace,” he told reporters Sunday prior to the 126-115 loss, the Lakers’ 46th defeat in 57 games this season. “I keep waiting for the hammer to drop. At some point it really has to hit, but it hasn’t hit me yet. I feel it’s the right thing and I’m ready to move on.”
All of us should be ready to move on. But there are eight weeks left, including final visits to Memphis, Denver, Phoenix, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and, his last road game, Oklahoma City.
None of those outposts has the history or significance of Chicago, where Jordan won six NBA titles and became the No.1 role model for Bryant’s generation. No other player came closer to Jordan in style, substance and killer instinct. Bryant told reporters he twice considered leaving L.A. to play in Chicago and follow Jordan’s footsteps.
Here’s thanking Bryant in advance for not following Jordan’s decision to come back. Neither the Lakers nor the NBA wants to witness another season of Bryant playing 30 minutes per game while shooting 35 percent from the field. That’s not how anyone desires to remember the Black Mamba.
These extended partings don’t damage a legend’s legacy. But they’re painful to watch and harmful to the franchise’s present and future prospects. Young players’ growth is stunted at the expense of faded superstars. The development of potential replacements is delayed. The product on the court/field can be downright embarrassing.
It wasn’t quite Willie-Mays-stumbling-in-the-outfield bad, but Jeter’s swan song was his worst full season by far. Juxtaposed against the slew of gifts he received from visiting teams – personalized kayaks, paddle boards, guitars, golf clubs, cowboy boots, etc. – you almost felt pity watching “The Captain” play.
Jeter’s junket marked MLB’s third consecutive farewell-palooza, preceded by Jones in 2012 and Rivera in 2013. Both of those players posted more-than-respectable numbers, with Jones helping Atlanta earn a wild-card berth while Rivera saved 44 games for the third-place Yankees.
Like Jeter, Bryant wanted to end on his own terms, opposed to being forced out by injuries. The Yankees shortstop played just 17 games in 2013, still suffering residual damage from the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 playoffs. In the two campaigns prior to this season, Bryant played a mere 41 games combined.
He had posted his best field-goal percentage in four seasons (.463 in 2012-13) before the injuries derailed him. Now he’s shooting a career-worst .352 from the field, prompting him to announce his retirement on Nov. 29 after hinting that another season – even in a different uniform – might follow when his contract expires this summer.
Long goodbyes are painful when all-time greats are shells of their former selves, struggling on teams going nowhere. Players have a right to suit up for as long as someone will have them, and I imagine retirement can be the most difficult step in a superstar’s life.
But we all suffer less when exits resemble Jabbar’s and Erving’s instead of Bryant’s and Jeter’s.
Erving, who made his announcement on opening night of the 1986-87 season, still had some game. He shot .471 from the floor and averaged 13 points for a Sixers team that reached the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year.
Jabbar announced his final go-round two seasons later and was feted more lavishly than Dr. J. Jabbar went out with a bigger bang, shooting .475 from the field and helping the Lakers reach their third consecutive Finals (and eighth in 10 seasons).
The current rendition of the Lakers is far from championship caliber. So is Bryant. But the parties are stuck with each other for until April 13.
And we’re stuck with this awkward sendoff, caught between respecting a Hall-of-Famer and disrespecting the game.