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Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour marks end of basketball love affair

Daniel Coyle, American Sports Correspondent | December 4, 2015

“Dear Basketball,

“From the moment

I started rolling my dad’s tube socks

And shooting imaginary

Game-winning shots

In the Great Western Forum

I knew one thing was real:

“I fell in love with you.”

And so began Kobe Bryant’s eloquent farewell letter in the Players’ Tribune, to the game he has dominated for two decades, the announcement of his imminent retirement from the NBA after 20 seasons.

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Kobe’s departure comes as little surprise to fans, who have watched him struggle through injury and poor Los Angeles Lakers teams over the past three years.

With Lakers (rank outsiders with Coral at 750/1 to win the Western Conference) struggling to find wins, Kobe’s announcement has once again focused the spotlight on the five-time NBA champion, who commenced his farewell tour around the NBA with a stop in his hometown of Philadelphia.

“As a six-year-old boy

Deeply in love with you

I never saw the end of the tunnel.

I only saw myself

Running out of one.”

Born in the City of Brotherly Love, Kobe first laid hands on a basketball at the age of three, pledging allegiance to the team he would one day lead, despite being the son of Joe Bryant, a power forward with the Philadelphia 76ers squad that won an NBA title in 1977.

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Following his retirement from the NBA in 1983, Joe continued his basketball career in Europe, moving his young family to Italy, and exposing Kobe to what would quickly become his other passion, soccer.

“I grew up in Italy. From the age from six to 14, I played soccer every day. It is actually my favorite sport,” said Kobe, in an interview leading up to last year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Admittedly less than a standout player in the Beautiful Game, Kobe returned to the United States as a huge fan of Serie A powerhouse AC Milan, speaking fluent Italian and Spanish, but ready to return to his first love, on the hardcourt.

Kobe had an immediate impact at Lower Merian High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, seizing a starter’s role as a freshman, a rare feat, and quickly attracting national attention as his high school career advanced. This lead to him ultimately claiming Naismith High School Player of the Year and Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year honours during his senior year.

“And so I ran.

I ran up and down every court

After every loose ball for you.

You asked for my hustle

I gave you my heart

Because it came with so much more.”

College ball beckoned with numerous top flight schools taking interest in the skinny kid from Philly, including Duke, North Carolina, Villanova, and Michigan. But following the lead of Kevin Garnett, who eschewed college to enter the 1995 NBA Draft, Kobe became the first guard ever selected straight out of high school, selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 Draft.

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The 17 year-old was quickly dealt to the Lakers, and would open his rookie campaign as the youngest player to ever play in an NBA game, just two months past his 18th birthday.

As part of a stacked Lakers line-up, Kobe bided his time in his first few NBA seasons, playing off the bench, but would soon establish himself as a rising star, earning the first of 17 all-star nominations in 1998, and comparisons to such greats as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. But the best was yet to come.

“I played through the sweat and hurt

Not because challenge called me

But because YOU called me.

I did everything for YOU

Because that’s what you do

When someone makes you feel as

Alive as you’ve made me feel.”

In 1999, Phil Jackson took over as Lakers bench boss after navigating Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. Playing alongside hall-of-fame center Shaquille O’Neal in Jackson’s trademark triangle offense, Bryant quickly climbed to elite status, with the duo leading Lakers to three consecutive NBA crowns.

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Then, Lakers’ 2001 championship run took Kobe back to his hometown, where the club battled the Sixers in the NBA Finals.

The 22-year-old showed no mercy against his father’s former team, powering the Lakers to crucial wins in Games 2 and 3, before winning the series in five games. Although, Bryant earned the derision of vocal 76ers fans, who would make their feelings toward the hometown boy felt, with passionate booing in Kobe’s subsequent visits home.

Though, while his partnership with O’Neal produced championships on the court, the two superstars often clashed off the court.

Their feud had its roots in Shaq’s frosty reception for the 18 year-old rookie, proclaiming, “I’m not going to be babysitting”, and continued through their time together in Los Angeles, with O’Neal regularly calling out his younger teammate for what he deemed “selfish play”.

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With Shaq out of the picture after signing with Miami Heat in 2004, Lakers were now Kobe’s team. Bryant would quickly establish himself as the Association’s premier player, racking up several Lakers franchise records, scoring a career-high 81 points in a 122-104 win over Toronto Raptors in January 2006, and picking up MVP honours in 2008, but another NBA title would elude him, until 2009.

Bryant dominated in the team’s two championship runs in 2009 and 2010, leading the team in scoring in 11 of 12 NBA Finals contests, finally stepping out of the massive shadow of Shaq, to become a proven winner in his own right.

“You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream

And I’ll always love you for it.

But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.

This season is all I have left to give.

My heart can take the pounding

My mind can handle the grind

But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”

Lakers claimed Pacific Division titles in the two years following those championship seasons, but failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

Now well into his thirties, Kobe has been hampered by a variety of injuries that limited him to just 41 total games in the two years prior to this, his final NBA campaign.

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As Kobe has declined, so have Lakers, who finished 14th in the NBA’s Western Conference in each of the past two seasons.

Few fans, who are now spending big dollars to be present at what will be Kobe’s final appearance in their team’s building, are expecting to see the dynamic teenager who has filled highlight reels for two decades.

They will instead show up to pay homage to one of basketball’s greats, who once captured their imagination, as he ends his love affair with the game.

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