Utah Jazz: Kobe Retirement Marks the End of an Era

April 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) shoots against Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
April 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) shoots against Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

As we bid adieu to Kobe Bryant’s playing career, we also say goodbye to one of the last remaining links to the NBA’s golden age and the glory days of the Utah Jazz.

On Wednesday night, the 2015-16 season came to an end for the Utah Jazz. It was a hard pill to swallow for Jazz fans; the team had been eliminated from the playoffs earlier in the night, a double-digit lead was choked away in a loss to the hated Los Angeles Lakers and the chance to finish the year with a .500 record was squandered.

As if these things weren’t punishment enough, Kobe Bryant was allowed to break the hearts of Jazz fans one last time before riding off into the sunset. Not only did he ensure a losing season for the Jazz, but he looked like the Kobe of old, willing his team to an unlikely win and doing so to the tune of 60 points.

For most, it was probably akin to losing the big promotion to your office rival. Like watching the girl of your dreams hop into the car of the guy that stuffs you into lockers. The same feeling one gets after gleefully digging into their Happy Meal, only to find a chicken head in the McNuggets.

In other words, bad times all around.

As time expired and the game, the Jazz season and Kobe’s illustrious playing career all came to an end, I felt a different emotion. In a strange way, it felt like saying goodbye to my youth.

When Kobe came into the league, Jazz basketball was at its apex. Coached by Jerry Sloan, the NBA’s ultimate one-two punch of John Stockton and Karl Malone, along with Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, the “Big Dog” Antoine Carr, Howard Eisley and the rest of the franchise’s most memorable squads were the class of the Western Conference.

It was the golden age of Jazz basketball, and the golden age of the league. That period from the mid-90s to the early 2000s after Magic Johnson and Larry Bird elevated the game in the 80s and before LeBron James and Kevin Durant ushered in the modern era of what has become a global sport.

“His Airness” Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls were making history in Chicago. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Sir Charles were in charge in Houston. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton made it rain in Seattle. Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway had taken their talents to South Beach.

And, all the while, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe had begun to build the NBA’s next great dynasties in San Antonio and Los Angeles.

For those of us of a certain age–I was in middle school when Mr. Bryant came into the league–it’s the era that defines the sport. The brand of basketball that will forever inform our opinions about the way the game is supposed to be played and what it looks like at the highest level.

It was what made basketball the center of my everyday life as a kid. The thing that could pry me away from comic books and Chrono Trigger and get me out into the driveway, playing pick-up games and honing my jump shot.

Although guys like Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Andre Miller are hanging on, Kobe’s retirement feels like the final words of that chapter of NBA basketball. Moreover, it feels like the book has been closed on the best era of Jazz ball.

Stockton-to-Malone has been done for more than a decade and Jerry Sloan coached his last game for the Jazz in 2011. Still, as the ultimate thorn-in-the-side of the Jazz at the end of their glory years and into the Deron WilliamsCarlos Boozer era takes his final bow, it feels like their final goodbye.

Like the comings and goings of friends and family, the night the last episode of Cheers aired, giving my old G.I. Joes away to undeserving little cousins or the moment I realized Ecto Cooler had been discontinued, it serves as a reminder of the ever-changing nature of life.

Next: An Open Letter to Jerry Sloan

The Jazz and the league at large are in a good place. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum could have the Jazz near the top of the west sooner rather than later and Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are doing things never before seen in the NBA.

Despite the disappointment that comes with a 40-win season and another year without postseason play, Jazz fans should be excited for the future.

I, for one, find it hard to believe that our team will have a similar fate next season. Big things are in store for the blue, green and gold. The Jazz were great in the past, but the best may be yet to come.

Out with the old and in with the new, as the old saying goes.

Still, as one of the last links to Utah’s basketball glory days and the Association’s golden age hangs up his jersey for the final time, one can’t help but feel the bittersweet sting of nostalgia as an era officially comes to an end.

For better or worse, the game of my youth has become something different. And while I look forward to the current and future evolutions of the hardwood experience and the ascent of the Jazz as they are now, none of it could ever be quite like 90s ball.