There's another way this will be a new experience for Bryant: for the first time we'll be judging him within the context of himself. He might find it liberating. Even though he came to feel burdened by the constant, self-induced comparisons to Michael Jordan, Bryant also realized it was a sign he was doing something right. And trust me, he considers one of the greatest testimonies to his career that he was the constant in an ever-evolving series of NBA debates: Kobe vs. Vince, Kobe vs. T-Mac, Kobe vs. Iverson, Kobe vs. LeBron.
Now it's Kobe vs. Kobe. The 2013-14, post-Achilles version against the player who scored 31,617 points in his first 17 seasons. In some ways it can be tougher than going one-on-one against someone else. For example, the 2012-13 season didn't raise many eyebrows or drop jaws, simply because it didn't match his peak performances. At age 34, when decline should have been evident, he put up a scoring average of 27.3 points that bested nine of his previous 16 seasons, and an assists average of 6.0 that matched his career high. Kobe took great pride in it, because he knew how hard he had to work to maintain his standards while his body grew older. The effort required was reaching the point that he wondered if he could continue to do so, or even if he wanted to. Then he tore the Achilles, and had a fresh challenge to motivate him.
In 2005, before he'd even reached the midpoint of his NBA career, Kobe told me: "I hope, one day, people will look back at my career and see everything that I've been through, everything that my fans have been through … and I just stayed steady. I didn't wig out. I just stayed steady, I stayed professional.
"And at the end of the day, when it's my last year, people can look back and say, 'You know what? He had a hell of a career, he was a hell of a basketball player, a hell of a person.' And then they'll appreciate all the years prior, too."
It's not the end of the day yet, but the sun is dipping toward the horizon. In other words, it's time to get a head start on the appreciation.