Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant show how decline and fall come to us all
NBA star and golfing phenom redefined the meaning of greatness in their respective sports, but now they are consigned to the past
They began in the twilight of the 20th century and proceeded to define the fledgling 21st century. In late August 1996, a 20-year-old golfing phenom named Tiger Woods played as a professional for the first time. A few months later, an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant, fresh out of Philadelphia's Lower Merion high school, played his first professional basketball game for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last week Bryant officially announced that his 20th season with the Lakers would be his last, while Woods officially declared he has nothing left and will no longer be playing golf, for now at least.
"The hardest part for me is there's really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build toward," he said, after numerous injuries and surgeries rendered the golfer now ranked 400th in the world completely insignificant.
Let's be honest, it's been hard to watch Tiger and Kobe, transcendent athletes in every sense of the word, these last few years. Their mortality is our mortality. If you were old when they started you are really old now.
That's the bad news. But the good news is you got to witness the entire breadth of their career when both redefined sporting greatness. No team athlete won like Kobe did during this century and no athlete in any sport won like Tiger.
Bryant has won five NBA championships in the 21st century, one more than Tim Duncan in basketball and Tom Brady in American football and two more than Buster Posey in baseball and Jonathan Toews in ice hockey.
From 2000 to 2010, Bryant was in seven NBA finals, winning five and losing two. Woods' success has been even more prodigious having won 12 major championships from 2000 to 2008.
They were both absolutely ruthless competitors who saved their best for the biggest moments. You can argue all day over whether Bryant or Michael Jordan was the greatest clutch shooter of all time. But if there has been a more cold-blooded shooter than Bryant over a 15-year period of sustained excellence, then I have yet to witness him.
Tiger was a physical specimen the likes of which golf had never seen before. However, for all his physical gifts, it was on the contoured greens with a flat stick in his hands where his legacy was defined.
Tiger is the greatest clutch putter in the history of golf. He once said when you are standing over a golf ball on the green nothing else in the world exists and no golfer, ever, had a more boisterous and rambunctious gallery then Tiger.
Not surprisingly, when the corporate golden boy and high-profile family man was exposed as a duplicitous, serial philanderer, his game never recovered. He became more tabloid fodder than legendary sportsman and there was no peace in his life, least of all when he was standing over a golf ball on the green.
There is still an outside chance we may see Tiger play again. His career greatness has ensured him exemptions at three of the four major championships; the Masters, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.
One month shy of his 40th birthday, he could well get hot a few years down the road and win one and who is to say he won't play on the seniors tour when he turns 50. But he is four behind his goal of catching Jack Nicklaus record of 18 major championships and, with an extraordinarily deep and talented young stable of golfers in front if him, it would be next to impossible for Woods to catch him despite seeming a certainty only six years ago.
For Kobe, there is no such ambiguity. This is it. Telegenic and bright, like Woods family man Bryant was once a marketer's dream. But in 2003 he was arrested for a sexual assault case in Colorado before reaching a financial agreement. His brand was toxic.
However, he managed to recoup some of his corporate partners and win a few more championships and an MVP. Bryant himself has acknowledged his bittersweet persona with a "hero/villain" retirement logo replete with a marketing campaign and a US$32 hat. He has also hired a film crew to follow him around and document his final year. With only three wins and 15 losses, the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the league and the battered Kobe one of the worst players. But if he is at peace then so should we be.
The outpouring of love and nostalgia for both Woods and Bryant does not necessarily mean they should get a pass for being crass. It simply means we are all a little older without them around.