EXCLUSIVE: Kobe Bryant on Retirement, Taking Hard Criticism and Who Would Win in Michael Jordan Match-Up

PHOTO: ABC News Robin Roberts sits down for an exclusive interview with NBA star Kobe Bryant after his retirement announcement.PlayLou Rocco/ABC
WATCH Kobe Bryant Plays Word Association Game With Robin Roberts

Kobe Bryant’s retirement brings about the end of an era.

The NBA superstar has shattered records, won titles and earned the respect of fans and fellow players, and in an exclusive interview with “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts, the elite player said this was the right time for him to retire from the game.

“You know, going through my entire career, I've never really understood what athletes meant when they said, ‘You -- when you know you know.’ But now I certainly understand it ... So once I knew this was it, might as well say it,” he said in the interview that aired Wednesday on "GMA."

The married father of two daughters told Roberts how he came to his decision.

“I try to have at least 15 minutes of still time and just kind of sit in my thoughts in the morning and just kind of meditate. And normally what happens with me is my mind would always drift to the game. Always," he said in reply to Roberts’ question during the Tuesday interview. "And then I found myself sitting there. My mind wouldn't drift towards the game all the time anymore. And that's when I started realizing, ‘You know what? It's getting close. It's getting close.’ Because now I'm not obsessively thinking about the game anymore. It's not wired into my subconscious the way it used to be.”

Bryant, 37, announced his retirement Sunday night in a poem posted on The Player's Tribune, a website launched last year by former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter.

The poem, posted hours before Bryant took the court against the Indiana Pacers, read, "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."

Bryant told Roberts that getting to the decision was “a slow process.”

“It was something that kind of evolved over the last three years, you know, with the Achilles injury, that really frightened me. Because you know, it was like, ‘My career could be over now.’ It scared me. ‘What am I going do next?’ sort of thing. So I took that time to start trying to figure that out,” he said, referring to his 2013 injury that left him unable to play for close to nine months.

After training hard, he returned to the game the following season and fractured his knee in a game against the Memphis Grizzlies in December 2013. He came back from that injury and then suffered a torn shoulder last January, sidelining him again for close to nine months.

“And it was just like, ‘Oh my,’ this is one thing after the next, you know? And so it was kind of a slow three-year process of kind of evolving to get to where I am,” he said.

The Philadelphia native dominated the sport for two decades, entering the NBA directly from high school and playing for the Los Angeles Lakers for his entire 20-year career.

During that time, Bryant won five NBA titles, was a 17-time All Star and earned two Olympic gold medals.

NOT HIS BEST SEASON

Bryant is his own biggest critic, and admits that this season hasn’t been his best, but some players – such as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant – have come to his defense. Durant, who has said he idolized Bryant growing up, has expressed frustration at recent media coverage of the player’s performance.

“He's a legend, and all I hear is about how bad he's playing, how bad he's shooting ...,” Durant said in an interview with ESPN.com.

Roberts asked Bryant whether he agreed that the media was being unfair to him. Bryant said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You can't just sit around expecting everybody just to ... give praise all the time, right? “ he said. “You’ve got to be able to take the good with the bad.”

He says one of the most important lessons that he can share with younger generations of player is “to accept it all” and not focus on media reports about their careers.

“The important thing is to not allow any of those things ... to affect your play, to affect your psyche. Because it's irrelevant. You just stay in the moment. And you just be,” he said.

Asked whether he had accomplished everything he want to on the court, he replied: “No. No. I wanted eight championships, as a dreamy kid, growing up ... I wanted eight.”

Roberts asked him about the significance of the number eight.

“Because Magic (Johnson) had five,” Bryant replied. “And then Michael (Jordan) had six. And then I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to win eight.’ And had the opportunity to have seven and didn't work out. But that was my -- that was my childhood dream was to try to win eight (championships)-- how ridiculous does that sound?”

Bryant has talked about wanting to have his place in the history of the game, and Roberts how he saw himself compared to other great players.

“Top five players of all time, who were those five players? And would you crack the starting five?” she asked.

“No, I would never put myself in the starting five ever,” he said. “I put the people that I've actually learned the most from, being Jordan, Magic, (Larry) Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Jerry West. Those are the players that personally I've learned the most from.”

Even so, he’s grateful that fans hold him in such high regard.

“To be mentioned in the same breath as those players, honestly, to me is -- I mean, that's everything. I mean, we'll sit and debate endlessly who was better, who would win in a one-on-one matchup between myself and M.J. And you can debate that till the cows come home,” he said.

Asked who would win that match-up, Bryant replied: “Oh, he would win some. I would win some.”

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