As the NBA regular season comes to a close, so does the end of an era for basketball. After a historic 20-year career, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will retire from professional basketball.

Bryant had announced at the beginning of the regular season that this would be his last ride, stating that his body could no longer handle the demands of playing at a high level. He leaves behind a truly unique legacy, one that isn’t quite matched by any professional athlete in the last 20 years.

Bryant entered the league as part of the 1996 NBA draft. Only 18 years old at the time, Bryant was such a highly regarded prospect that he was drafted 13th overall straight out of high school. Bryant, along with fellow NBA legend Kevin Garnett, was the first of many “Prep to Pros” prospects. He was initially drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, but was traded to the Lakers almost immediately as part of a deal between both front offices.

Bryant was an instant sensation. As a rookie, he became the youngest player ever to start in the NBA. Bryant’s early days with the Lakers were defined by his rivalry with Lakers forward Shaquille O’Neal. At the time, O’Neal was an established all-­star, having served many tours in the NBA, and was considered the face of the Lakers when Bryant arrived. However, Bryant often challenged O’Neal for control of the team and for a larger role than him on the court. Each of Bryant’s first three seasons were marked by disappointing postseason losses.

The start of the 1999 regular season marked the beginning of Bryant’s dominance. In the offseason, the Lakers hired Phil Jackson to be their head coach. Jackson had just led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in eight years from 1991­-1998.

Jackson continued his success without a flinch in Los Angeles, as the Lakers would win the NBA finals three years in a row from 2000-­2002. The next two seasons were marked by disappointment, as the Lakers lost to the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons respectively in the postseason. At the end of the 2003­-2004 season, Phil Jackson’s contract was not renewed and O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, leaving Bryant as the sole face of the Lakers franchise.

The Lakers would struggle for the next few years, failing to reach the NBA finals for each of the next three seasons. It would not be until the 2007­-2008 season that Bryant returned to the finals to face the Boston Celtics. The Lakers would eventually lose to the Celtics, but beat the Orlando Magic in the finals the following year, before defeating Boston in a rematch in 2010. This would bring Bryant’s championship total to five, just one short of matching Michael Jordan.

In the following years the Lakers were competitive, but slowly began to deteriorate into one of the worst teams in the league. The past two seasons have been the second worst and worst in terms of team record for the Lakers franchise, leaving Bryant with little to show for in his career’s final act.

For better or for worse, Bryant’s career will largely be defined by comparisons between him and Jordan. Kobe entered the league right as Jordan was leaving it, and was in many ways seen as Jordan’s heir for king of the NBA. While constantly being scrutinized, Bryant wasn’t only able to build a career that was comparable to Jordan’s, but one that was brilliant on it’s own.

The NBA will sorely miss Bryant. “Mamba,” as he was known to many, was the ultimate competitor and brought a fiery passion with him every time he stepped onto the court. Current NBA superstars from Kevin Durant to Lebron James have all heaped praise onto Bryant as he played each of them one last time.

“I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain,” said James in an interview with ESPN. James’ statement was in regards to the 2008­-2009 season, where James heavily favored Cavaliers were upset in the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Orlando Magic, denying the basketball world a much anticipated “Kobe vs. Lebron” finals. It is telling that eight years later, James is still remorseful about missing the opportunity to have faced Bryant.

In the end, Bryant was a star whose abilities on the court transcended who he was as a person. He is an icon of the sport and is one of the top 10 if not a top five player of all time. He will be sorely missed by basketball fans around the world.

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