LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant walked through that familiar Staples Center tunnel on Monday night, the one by the loading dock where reporters used to always pick his brain long after the game was over and the press conference was done.
But this time, 20 months after his 20-year run came to an end with Bryant as the third-leading scorer of all-time and a five-time champion best known for his relentless will, the realities of retired life were there for all to see. He walked in pushing his 1-year-old daughter, Bianka, inside a black, five-star stroller, his wife, Vanessa, and older daughters, 14-year-old Natalia and 11-year-old Gianna, at his side as he strolled along in that Darth Vader black suit. His Lakers family flocked his way soon thereafter, chief among them Lakers president Magic Johnson and his former agent/Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka.
Bryant was back, there for the retirement of the No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys that he wore so well and more than willing to take this walk down memory lane.
The double-jersey component of his evening made for a compelling debate, as Bryant was forced to answer the question of which number he preferred over the other. He wore No. 8 during those first 10 years, when there were plenty of highs (three championships alongside Shaquille O’Neal) and lows (the Eagle, Colo., chapter). The No. 24 era was his revenge tour of sorts, with Bryant staying put after that unfulfilled trade demand in 2007 and making it his mission to win it all without O’Neal at his side (2009 and 2010) while fighting through so many injuries just to stay on the floor.
“I kind of go back and forth (on which number he prefers),” Bryant said. “(No.) 8 has something that 24 will never, ever, ever, ever have, and that’s the ability to grow hair. So it’s tough …”
The laughter gave way to real perspective.
“It’s really, really tough for me,” he continued. “I think 24 was more challenging, and I tend to gravitate to things that are harder to do. Physically for me, it was really, really hard to get up night in and night out. It was a grind. Taking on the Boston Celtics (in the 2010 Finals), and having a bone fragment in my foot during that series, having a broken finger, muscling through that back half of the career. It was some of the toughest stretches of basketball ever, man. So I guess if you force me to pick one, I’d probably go 24 because of that.”
Truth be told, Bryant isn’t really gone at all.
He talks with Pelinka almost daily, and has the ear of Johnson and owner Jeanie Buss whenever he pleases. What’s gone, but certainly not forgotten, are the days of Bryant being able to help with the Lakers mission on the floor.
Yet, while the unofficial Lakers duties aren’t filling his day, he is finding plenty of ways to stay busy. He wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, then works out at 5 a.m. In between family duties, it’s media projects like his short film, Dear Basketball, (which is in the running for an Oscar) that make him happy now.
Despite what so many former players expected.
“You know what, I had a lot of players, former players, come up to me in the last year, like genuinely concerned, like ‘Are you going to be OK?’” Bryant said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be all right.’ They’re like, ‘Listen, it’s going to be progressive. The first week, there’s going to be a serious state of depression. The second week, you’re going to be angry. The third week, you’re going to start coming around having a level of acceptance.’ I’m like, ‘What the (expletive)? No, seriously, I’m good.’
“I think the most important thing is finding what you love to do. That’s the hardest part, and it took work. … It took a lot of work, a lot of soul searching, a lot of investigating, trying things out, but when you find what it is that you love to do then you wake up every morning with a sense of purpose. So my life has been great. I fell into a great routine. I work out at 5 o’clock every morning, take the kids to school, get some breakfast with my wife, go to the office, work there, pick the kids up. And then from there, it’s just volleyball here, basketball here, soccer there, you know what I mean? That’s my routine.”
By USA Today