It is a question that eventually surrounds every player as they reach the twilight of their career. Asked at every press conference, rephrased in every interview and speculated by every fan. It is the question of ‘when will you retire?’ or ‘how much longer do you think you can continue?’ It is a cruel truth across every sport that once you become a star everyone begins to predict when you are going to fall. For Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, it is a question which is going be asked with increasing regularity, particularly now he has announced the end of his season due to a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Bryant has had a phenomenal professional career which recently saw him pass Michael Jordan to take third place on the National Basketball Association’s all-time scoring list. When it comes to the Lakers, Bryant is as close to an institution as you can get. The 36-year-old has played for the Lakers for his entire professional career, showing unwavering loyalty to the Los Angeles franchise since 1996. During his time with the Lakers, Bryant has assisted them in winning five NBA championships. Moreover, away from the Lakers, Bryant is a 17-time All-Star, a 15-time member of the All-NBA Team and a 12-time member of the All-Defensive Team.
This stellar career does become marginally less surprising when one considers that Bryant is the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant. The talent in Bryant’s blood was apparent from a young age, when he enjoyed an incredible high school basketball career at Lower Merton High, Pennsylvania. He was quickly recognised by spotters as one of the top high school basketball players in the country and was promptly picked upon his graduation as the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Oddly, it was not the Lakers who first saw his potential. It was actually the Charlotte Hornets who picked him in the draft, but later traded him with the Lakers. That was a decision the Hornets lived to regret as Bryant quickly became a fan favourite after winning the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest.
Bryant’s initial career with the Lakers was supremely successful as he helped lead them to three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002. But this was somewhat tarnished by his reported feud with fellow player Shaquille O’Neal. However, once O’Neal moved to the Miami Heat, Bryant quickly became the undisputed cornerstone of the franchise, leading them to two further championships in 2009 and 2010. In addition to these NBA achievements, Bryant has two Olympic gold medals after winning at Beijing and London, respectively.
However, with the average age of an NBA player hovering around 27, it is questionable how much longer Bryant can continue adding to his impressive resume, especially considering the severity of his injury. To put Bryant’s injury in perspective, WTA star Maria Sharapova suffered an identical tear at the age of 21 in 2008. Despite her relative youth compared to Bryant at this time, Sharapova would not return to her previous form until 2012, where she won the French Open. Whilst Sharapova had the luxury of time to spend four years rebuilding her game, Bryant does not.
This is not to suggest that Bryant cannot return nor that critics should bark for his retirement. However, it would be naive to not question his future in the sport. However, as we all know, the only thing that sport fans love more than predicting a downfall is having that prediction proved wrong.