Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning, two of the most consequential athletes of the past 20 years, are fast approaching the finish lines of their respective careers, and the curtain calls these icons are currently experiencing have not unfolded in manners that either player would have hoped for.
On Sunday, Bryant announced his plans to retire at the end of this season in a letter in the Players’ Tribune titled “Dear Basketball.” Never one for subtlety, Bryant’s letter touches on his longstanding love of the game and provides a forum for him to remind fans that he gave it his all, “From my mind & body, To my spirit and soul.” Yet the most surprising aspect of the missive isn’t the poetic prose or the stark descriptions of hustling for loose balls, but the fact that it reveals that Bryant has decided to wait until the end of the season, as opposed to the NBA All-Star break or right now, to retire. Considering how poorly Bryant is playing—he’s arguably the worst regular player on the 2–14 Los Angeles Lakers—it would be understandable if he decided to hang-up his jersey right now and stop subjecting himself and his fans to such awful displays of basketball.
Not only is Bryant having his worst statistical season, but his inability to even create scoring opportunities for himself brings to mind memories of Willie Mays struggling at the end of his memorable career. Bryant was never the most efficient NBA player—unlike Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two players he’s often compared to, he never shot above .500 in a single season (his career high was .469 and he has started this season shooting .305). But at his peak, Bryant was an aesthetic marvel who regularly took fans’ breaths away with singular displays of athleticism. Now, the image of him needing multiple screens and countless pump fakes just to get a shot off suggests that it might have behooved Bryant to retire long before he became a shell of the explosive player who wore No. 8 and helped carry one of the most dominant NBA teams of all time.
As bad as Bryant’s NBA season has been, meanwhile, Peyton Manning’s NFL season has been worse. Less than two years removed from setting the record for most touchdown passes in a single season, the 39-year old quarterback entered the 2015-16 NFL campaign with realistic hopes that he and his Denver Broncos teammates could recapture the form that landed them in the Super Bowl in 2014. Instead, Manning has been absolutely terrible: He’s thrown nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and his 67.6 quarterback rating is the worst of his career. Manning has missed the Broncos’ last two games with a partially torn plantar fascia, and his season (and arguably career) reached its nadir Sunday night when he took the field at Mile High clad in dad jeans and a baseball cap and sat on the sideline as his great adversary Tom Brady battled the Broncos in a Sunday night classic. That game was supposed to be perhaps the final installment of the iconic Brady-Manning rivalry; instead Manning’s replacement Brock Osweiler played well enough to incite speculation over whether or not Manning will ever play another NFL game.
It’s never easy to watch once great athletes suffer the inevitable decline that comes with age, but watching Bryant and Manning recede from greatness has been particularly painful because of who they are and what their careers have represented. There are some athletes whose reputations derive entirely from what they did on the fields of play. Think Julius Erving and Barry Sanders, two athletes best remembered for the artistry and unparalleled athletic skills they brought to their respective sports. Neither man’s personality was so big or unique, or so at odds or in sync with the mores of sports culture, that it impacted the public’s perception of their careers. Appreciation of both Erving and Sanders stems entirely from what they did.
Then there are some athletes whose personas seem to epitomize the bromidic beliefs that lie at the heart of American sports: Winning is the only thing that matters, hard work and perseverance lead to greatness, champions are made not born. And the ideas for which these athletes end up functioning as avatars become just as important as the accomplishments and accolades they amass. Michael Jordan may have become a superstar because of the imaginative ways he soared through the air, but it was his infamous will to win, a will that often approached downright cruelty, that made him the irreplaceable idol he still is. His work ethic and refusal to accept anything but near perfection evolved into his defining aspects as an athlete.
Bryant and Manning very much belong to the latter pedigree. Both are known as much for their incredible work ethics, tireless pursuits of excellence, and the kind of stubbornness that often accompanies athletic greatness, as they are for their achievements. Each player has long curated a reputation of unyielding dedication to their craft. As a sports fan, when you rooted for Bryant or Manning to succeed, you weren’t just rooting for the player or for the teams he represented. You were rooting for vindication of the idea that sports is egalitarian at its core because it rewards athletes who amplify their talents through hard work rather than those who get by on natural abilities alone.
Because their work ethics are so legendary, the willfully ignorant fan inside me has always wanted to believe that such dedication would allow them to consciously shape their career trajectories. If any two players could dictate their finishes, could end their careers in manners befitting everything they’ve accomplished, it had to be these two. And yet as these past few weeks have demonstrated, that is simply not the case. Bryant and Manning now look like two people whose willingness to test the misinformed notion that athletes can overcome any and all travails through hard work, even aging, gave them acute tunnel vision. They look like two athletes who should have retired months ago and spared themselves, their teammates, and fans from the sad spectacle of watching them struggle.
I will always have fond memories of watching Bryant and Manning regularly achieve the kind of greatness most professional athletes never dream of approaching. But I will also remember that they both proved something history has shown to be true time and time again: Even the best can’t dictate their finishes.