In his 20th season and after five championships, Kobe Bryant has announced he will retire from the NBA after the 2015-16 campaign, making the announcement official on Sunday.
It's the end of one of the most legendary and memorable careers in NBA history. In the throes of a post-Michael Jordan world, it was Bryant who captivated the fandom of millions, creating Laker fans that stretched from the West coast to the East. His trademarked turnaround jump shot, his vicious, rim-rocking dunks, his crazy-eyed underbite celebration after a particularly clutch basket -- you can see them all in your head right now, can't you?
There was the other side, too. His brashness rubbed people the wrong way. His success drove fans from other teams crazy. But as Bryant prepares to hang them up for good, there's no doubt that he was one of the few most influential players in the NBA and will be remembered as such.
Partnering with Shaq
Bryant, picked No. 13 by the Charlotte Hornets only to be traded to the Lakers, spent two seasons on the bench in Los Angeles, developing into a player who would take the league by storm. In the 1998-99 season, his third in the league, Bryant started all 50 games and averaged 19.9 points as Los Angeles reached the conference semifinals before falling to the eventual champions, the Spurs.
Shaquille O'Neal arrived the same year as Bryant and the two formed one of the most storied duos in the NBA. O'Neal was the power, overwhelming anyone who dared defend him in the post, while Bryant bombed away from outside. With Phil Jackson at the helm, the Lakers won three straight championships starting in 2000, cementing Bryant as a superstar.
The relationship turned toxic over the following years, though, and a five-game loss in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons in 2004 sent O'Neal away from Los Angeles for good. It was Bryant's team alone.
Reforming a championship contender
The Lakers won just 34 games the year after O'Neal left and followed it by back-to-back first-round exits, but they were entertaining nevertheless thanks to Bryant's theatrics. He averaged 35.4 points in that lost year of 2005-06, the type of performance that hadn't been seen since Jordan. He scored 81 points in a regulation game in 2006, one of the greatest single-game performances in the NBA.
Phil Jackson stuck around and in 2008, after a trade for Pau Gasol, the Lakers finally returned to the Finals. They lost to the Celtics but won the next two in 2009 and 2010, putting Bryant on a very short list of players to win an NBA championship five times.
A second-round sweep in 2011 at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, who would win the championship that year, ended that glory run. Jackson retired and Bryant's age began to show.
The final years
Remarkably healthy throughout his career, the thousands upon thousands of minutes Bryant played since entering the league out of high school finally took their toll. Bryant had season-ending surgery right before the 2013 playoffs, missed nearly all of the 2013-14 campaign with another ailment and was shut down 35 games into the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have struggled in mediocrity, finally retooling their roster through the draft over the past two summers.
Bryant's game has taken some hits as the NBA has evolved, looking less and less favorably at inefficient shotmakers who often make poor decisions. But Bryant's legacy and his five championships will live through that -- he's a bonafide legend who carried the legacy of being the NBA's best from Michael Jordan to LeBron James.
If we know one thing, it's this: there's never going to be another player like Kobe.