A season of retirement rumors awaits for Kobe Bryant
Speculation that 2015-16 might be Bryant's last NBA season isn't going away any time soon. Neither are the whispers, stoked by former coach Phil Jackson, that the Black Mamba might consider leaving the Los Angeles Lakers to try to win his sixth championship somewhere else. We're by no means in a hurry to see Bryant go; in fact, the NBA won't be the same once he hangs it up. And we don't have any inside information. But we can't help contemplating just how Bryant's career might end from here. As the future Hall of Famer enters his 20th NBA season, and with the Lakers starting their season Wednesday, here are a few different ways things could wrap up for Bryant -- from the realistic to the slightly fanciful -- and where he might go from there.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Mentor to the young Lakers of the future
We have our fingers crossed that Bryant will play well and stay healthy this season. But if he does, his performance will raise an important question: What next? His contract is set to expire this summer, and it's hard to see the Lakers justifying another big payday for Bryant. But if he's set on retiring as a lifelong Laker, there's a fit here. Bryant takes a discount and signs a team-friendly deal for two or three years to stay with the Lakers with the express purpose of molding the trio of D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson into the kind of core that can lead Los Angeles back to the promised land. And who knows? With the resulting cap space, maybe the Lakers are able to land a big free agent and compete for a title in Bryant's final year -- say, 2018-19 -- before Kobe moves into the Lakers front office.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
The ring is the thing -- and catching Jordan
Nothing has changed in Bryant's pursuit of catching Michael Jordan's six NBA titles. Well, nothing except the odds that Bryant is able to reach that milestone with a single team. The cold, hard truth is that Bryant is going to have to look elsewhere if he really wants to win ring No. 6. His options as a free agent will depend on how well he plays this season, but here's a scary thought -- Bryant on a minimum deal, in Texas, alongside Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. Pop's reportedly a huge fan of Bryant's, and the combined IQ of the Spurs with Bryant in the fold would be off the charts. The Knicks will come up, although they don't offer Bryant a realistic shot at a ring. But could Bryant join LeBron James in Cleveland? We're sorry, Lakers fans, if your skin is crawling.
It's the outcome nobody wants to consider, and with good reason. The past few years have been bad enough, as Bryant has battled a torn Achilles tendon, a fractured knee, a torn rotator cuff and various ankle and leg ailments. It's just not fair that an all-time basketball great would have to see his career cut short by injury. But injuries could force Bryant out of the game as soon as this season in one of two ways. Either the accumulated burden of his aches and pains is too much, limiting Bryant's playing time and forcing his hand. Or a catastrophic incident occurs once more, and the NBA is forced to commemorate a Hall of Fame career sooner than expected. Let's move on before this gets any more upsetting.
Harry HowHarry How
Black Mamba goes on a world tour
What happens if Bryant neither plays up to his high standards nor feels like he's completely out of gas as a basketball player? It might be time to solidify the already formidable global reach of Bryant's brand. If he stays healthy in 2015-16, Bryant could bid farewell to the NBA and take his talents all over the world. There's been joking mention of a reunion with former Lakers teammate Pau Gasol in Spain when their North American careers are over -- why not make that joke a reality? Bryant could also take a swing through Italy, where he grew up, then head to China, where he's a megastar. It's not like he needs the money, but Bryant could command a pretty penny for brief stints around the globe while serving as an ambassador for the game.
AFP/Getty ImagesMARK RALSTON
Moving beyond basketball in the case of retirement
Let's say that 2015-16 is Bryant's last year as a basketball player. He announces his retirement after this season. What's next? We could see Bryant taking on a similar role to Hakeem Olajuwon, who's made a nice cottage industry for himself out of advising big men (and some wings) on their post moves. But Bryant wouldn't limit his advice to on-court questions or the footwork necessary to create space for a fadeaway jumper. Bryant has seen it all, and he's known as a blunt character. Need some help on how to balance your time as a professional with a multitude of obligations? Bryant can help -- for a price. Unsure how to deal with locker room tension? Bryant knows. Having a hard time relating to your coach? You already know who you need to call.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
A big adventure in joint business ventures
It's hard to imagine Bryant completely separating himself from the game that's defined his life. On the other hand, there's always the chance he'll move into a different sphere and try to conquer it with the same passion he brought as a professional basketball player. Bryant is one of the most famous people on the planet, and his contact list has to include some of the world's most influential people. Bryant could offer his ideas, brand and considerable financial influence to tackle big issues of the day -- or the world of capitalism. Perhaps he could even combine business with basketball, becoming a super-agent for superstars or commissioner of his own basketball league in the case of a potential upcoming lockout.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Taking on all challengers, off the court
Many former athletes talk about the lack of competition as one of the biggest adjustments after retirement. When your entire professional existence is focused on winning the day, stoking that competitive fire is a real chore. So here's an idea, borrowed from Paul Pierce, a regular participant in the World Series of Poker -- "Kobe Bryant, professional gambler." Bryant could take up poker, like Pierce, and his mere presence would change the way the rest of the table plays, or he could become a daily fantasy sports expert. And if that's not enough, we have a trump card: Bryant turns his Twitter account into an open challenge, accepting bets in various competitive endeavors. From playing tennis with Roger Federer to crushing eSports pros at their own (video) games, we'd pay to see Bryant take other people's money.
The greatest broadcaster in sports history
When Bryant decides that he's done playing basketball, there will almost certainly be a bidding war for his services as an analyst on game broadcasts and in the studio. Combine Charles Barkley's honesty and Shaquille O'Neal's showmanship with Bryant's unmatched knowledge of the game, and we're in business. Bryant would be fantastic as an analyst during pregame and at the half, and we're giggling at the thought of Kobe as a sideline reporter, asking Gregg Popovich questions. But if we're being completely upfront, we really want to see Bryant and O'Neal on the same broadcast. It wouldn't even matter which two teams were featured on television that night; the studio show would be must-see.
Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports