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With Kobe Bryant riding off into the sunset, the Suns/Lakers rivalry will never be the same

Kobe Bryant has suited up for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 seasons, but the Phoenix Suns only have three cracks left at him before he calls it a career.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

By now, most basketball fans have heard the official announcement of something that was assumed for months — this will be Kobe Bryant's last season. The 20-year veteran made the announcement in The Players' Tribune on Nov. 29.

Bryant's retirement won't redden many eyes in Phoenix, though. He averaged 26.9 points over 86 regular season and playoff games against the Suns, hitting big shots to break the hearts of Suns fans on multiple occasions in the process.

For instance, there was the game winner he hit over Jason Kidd in Game 2 of the 2000 Western Conference Semifinals to crush Phoenix's hopes of stealing away home court advantage from the eventual champion Lakers.

There was the elbow jumper he hit in overtime over Boris Diaw and Raja Bell in Game 4 of the first round of the 2006 playoffs to win the game and give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead. Of course, that game was followed by Bryant carelessly running into Bell's arm with 7:33 left to play in Game 5, spurring Bell to refer to Bryant as a "pompous, arrogant individual" and forever making that the "clothesline game."

And then there were the 33.7 points he averaged in the 2010 Western Conference Finals that put the final nail in the coffin for any hope of seeing Steve Nash and the Suns in the NBA Finals.

The contentious relationship between Bryant and the Suns over the years manifested itself into mutual disdain by one for the other. "I don't like them," Bryant said of the Suns during the 2011-12 season. "Plain and simple, I do not like them. They used to whip us pretty good and used to let us know about it, and I. Will. Not. Forget. That."

Suns fans share that sentiment. Bryant hit many impossible shots at Phoenix's expense and took great satisfaction in hanging losses on them, leaving Suns fans with little alternative than to hate the jaw-jutting, teeth-bearing, jersey-biting, "pompous" Mamba. Through all the impressive stat lines, fans clung to the knowledge that Kobe wouldn't be Kobe forever, that time would eventually catch up with him. One day, he would be a mere mortal again, and we would have the last laugh.

But now, watching as the once-mighty Lakers crash and burn around him while he shoots at a historically poor clip, some Suns fans (myself included) can't help but feel a twinge of sorrow at the realization that this really is Bryant's last hurrah.

With Bryant hanging up his Nike's, beating the Lakers won't come with the same satisfaction it once did. While no self-respecting Suns fan actually needs a reason to root against the Lakers, beating the tar out of No. 24 made those wins extra special. Helping Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass claw their way to the bottom just won‘t be the same.

It has also become increasingly difficult to hate Kobe Bryant — at least this Kobe Bryant. With him looking like a shell of the shell of his former self this year, it is somewhat like seeing Darth Vader without the helmet. With it on, he is an imposing presence — a villain to be feared. But take it off and you're left with an old, wheezing burn victim who you can't help but feel a little bit sorry for even after what he did to Alderaan. That's Kobe today. In his prime, he was the perfect black hat on an already black-hat team, but now he elicits more pity than vitriol.

Finally, from a competition standpoint, it will be sad to see him go. Few players in the history of this game were more driven and competitive than Bryant. He was never going to be the friendly, easygoing star like Dirk Nowitzki or Nash. He was more likely to take an opponent's head off than shake his hand. This mentality led to a number of notable clashes with teammates and coaches but also made him into the player he became. That fierce competitive drive also fueled his willingness to play through injuries that would've sidelined lesser players for months. Had it not been medically inadvisable, he probably would have tried to Krazy Glue his Achilles back to his heel in 2013. That determination to both play and win made Bryant a unique opponent — one whose likes sadly won't be seen around the NBA again anytime soon.

For Suns fans, this is a conflicting time. Bryant's basketball demise was long sought by this fan base, but now that it has finally come, it's more bittersweet than delicious. The epic battles are over, the boos nearly gone. Soon all that will remain are the memories.

Kobe Bryant was a rare breed, and even though the NBA will go on without him, as it did with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Bill Russell before him, those games against LA just won't feel quite the same next season without Bryant.

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