By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Last night, in one last remarkable swan song of a performance, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant lit up the Staples Center in his final game after a 20-year career as a Los Angeles Laker. In many ways, the performance was magical: 60 points, a last-minute clutch shot to take the lead, and the crowd chanting on its hero, one last time.
It reminded me, in some ways, of this “final season” watching Michael Phelps. Another veteran, transcendent in his sport, a 30-something warrior perhaps making a final round on the competitive circuit this spring and summer. Another superstar with a suddenly relaxed demeanor, smiling, happier, enjoying the ride. Of course, we’ve heard these “retirement hints” before from the Phelps clan, like when after the 2012 Olympics, Phelps told the world he was done with swimming, only to return a few seasons later.At some point, though, the body just will not adhere to what the mind wants. Phelps, unlike Kobe, can still regularly compete at the sport’s extreme highest levels. What was special about last night was that Kobe gave fans one last show not just at the highest level, but far exceeding it — a final glimmer of the basketball god he once was. Phelps’ opportunity to declaratively stamp his legacy comes this weekend, and subsequent weekends leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
It’s unfortunate that, sometimes, sports heroes are remembered not just by how they played the game, but by how they left the game. Derek Jeter and his walk-off single in his final game at Yankee Stadium. Peyton Manning and his final game winning the Super Bowl. Last night, Kobe and his already-legendary 60-point performance win. What was bittersweet at the 2012 Olympics was how Phelps was going to leave the competition pool — a 400 medley gold medal draped around his neck, the Star Spangled Banner, a smile, and hundreds of millions of people watching on, a champion once more, a final victory to settle those churning waters.
The script now for this chlorinated conclusion is unwritten. Of course, Phelps will (and already has) gone down as swimming’s greatest. That’s settled upon. That’s no debated. But after last night, after watching Kobe light up the Staples Center, and after watching two other legends of their respective games go out as winners (Jeter and Manning), you can’t help but wonder what Phelps’ fate has in store.
The 100m butterfly is the event for Phelps to leave the pool on his own terms. It’s the final individual event, as well as his potential contribution to the last event on the Olympic schedule, the 400 medley relay. This weekend, Phelps is not competing in the 100m butterfly, though you know it'll be on the Trials schedule. Which turns our eyes towards another event this weekend which carries significant meaning: the 200m IM.
There was a moment last night after the Lakers game when Kobe and Shaq, once teammates and once adversaries, met at center court and embraced. Though Phelps and Ryan Lochte have not had any public squabbles on the level that Kobe and Shaq have had, there have been admissions on both sides that one would not be the swimmer he is today without the competitive spirit and fire of the other.
This weekend at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Mesa, Phelps and Lochte meet once more. The 200m IM. It’s an electric event, faster than the 400 IM, splashier. While it won’t determine the best all-around swimmer (the 200 IM’s bigger brother, the 400 IM, does that), it does determine who is the best sprint-based all-around swimmer.
Though this weekend’s results will have little impact on either’s long-term legacy, you do wonder if each of swimming’s superstars watched Kobe’s final game and if either has begun to ponder what the water gods have in store for them. Phelps and Lochte are not age group swimmers. They are men, in their 30s; their competitive careers, like everyone else who has come before, have shelf lives.
You can be sure each wants to take this one. They are friends. They are competitors. And they do not want to lose.
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