By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) – Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West, who engineered the trade two decades ago that brought Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers, said on Monday it has been painful to watch the struggling 17-time NBA All-Star play this season.
Bryant, enduring by far his worst season since entering the National Basketball Association in 1996, announced on Sunday he will retire at the end of the season.
“It has been painful for me to watch him,” West said in a telephone interview. “It bothers me. A lot of people will remember him for how he’s playing now. I won’t.”
Bryant, who helped lead the Lakers to the NBA title five times, is averaging 15.5 points per game but shooting below 31 percent this season. The Lakers have a record of 2-14, worst in the Western Conference. He is shooting just 20 percent from three-point range.
West said at 37 years old, Bryant may have the desire but can no longer meet the game’s physical demands.
“As you get older, you just can’t react as you used to,” he said. “There are little moments where your body betrays you. The way he plays now is just not something I’m familiar with. This has been a season, to me, that has exposed the dangers of getting older as an athlete.”
West, 77, served in the Lakers’ front office when he pulled off one of the most one-sided trades in NBA history, shipping journeyman centre Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant. West now holds a post with the Golden State Warriors.
Bryant, limited by injuries to six games two seasons ago and 35 last season, announced on Sunday “this season is all I have left to give.”
“My heart can take the pounding, my mind can handle the grind, but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” he wrote on the Players’ Tribune website.
West said Bryant’s grit and willingness to play through injury made him “something special.”
“It’s a testament to his integrity in terms of how he approached the game,” West said. “Many players would not have played with some of the things he had. He reminds me of a gladiator, that he was going to play, come hell or high water, regardless of how he felt.”
West said he is disappointed Bryant cannot end his career playing at a level “he’s been accustomed to.”
“In watching him play, it’s evident that this is a tough game for him to play right now,” West said. “It’s sad.”
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)