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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Kobe Bryant: The next chapter?

By Brian Kamenetzky

A week ago, after an 82-74 preseason loss to the Jazz at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Kobe Bryant unburdened his knees, the right one still recovering from offseason surgery, of their standard postgame ice wrap and wandered to his locker and the assembled media. He was, as he almost always is, the last Laker in the room, thanks to a lengthy postgame regimen designed to keep his 32-year old body from reading its odometer.

Kobe Bryant has been a bad, bad man for a long, long time. His challenge now? Staying that way.

He had clanked 11 of 13 attempts, continuing a trend of awful shooting lines through the first six exhibitions. These are not things a five-time champion and two-time Finals MVP worries about.

The sense of obligation, from Bryant to stand before us and likewise for us to ask him, well, something, was palpable. By the sixth preseason game, he'd answered every version of every question imaginable about his knee, the one thing he made clear early in training camp he wasn't going to talk much about. Questions about his shooting were the same as the ones asked the day before, the day before that, and would again be asked tomorrow, all with the understanding Kobe Bryant's field goal percentage before Halloween won't be a determining factor in the team's pursuit of a third straight title.

"Honestly guys, I'm out of answers," he said.

No problem. We were out of questions.

And there was giggling. With the first question through the 97 seconds he stood and engaged in the exercise. From us, from him. A recognition all of us of how silly it all was, so far in advance of where the Lakers are universally expected to go this season.

It's not only in his dealings with reporters Kobe has softened a little.

“His evolution has come around the game, as far as finding different ways of succeeding," says Luke Walton, his teammate since 2003. “It wasn’t that he was a bad teammate, he just did things different ways. His way that he always succeeded with was like, 'I’m going to get out there, I’m going to play my butt off, I’m going to score a bunch of points, and you guys had better be with me. And if not, I’m going to yell.' Now, I think it’s more a family approach. Let’s converse, let’s figure out the best way to succeed, and let’s do it together. More as a team unit. Knowing people’s strength’s and weaknesses, and attacking it like that.”

On the floor, he has evolved as well. Kobe will tell you it's because he has better teammates, evidenced by three straight trips to the Finals following the acquisition of Pau Gasol in February of 2007. Phil Jackson believes there's more to it. A change in the way Bryant approaches winning itself.

“I think that he measures it. There was a time, there’s such a challenge to blow people out of the water," he says. "Now it’s kind of a measurement of what is it going to take to beat this team?  You don’t have to beat the team where I get 35 or do something spectacular, so much as much as, what’s it going to take? Is it going to take me scoring? Passing? Or whatever. I think that’s how it changes.”

Kobe Bryant
It's an interesting time for Kobe Bryant as the miles on his body continue to add up. How will the bumps and bruises of a regular season affect him?

"As you gain experience, you learn sometimes less is more," Derek Fisher said.

Bryant's career can roughly be divided into eras, each containing a wide array of highs and lows. An All Star before he was a starter on his own team. Cornerstone of a title-laden but tempestuous partnership with Shaquille O'Neal that could have been so much more. The ultra-frustrated superstar, questioning is future in L.A. after his only sub-.500 season and consecutive first round playoff exits. The MVP owner of two Finals MVP's following the arrival of Gasol and three straight Finals appearances, two rings, and a very realistic chance at another.

But eras can overlap. This year's dominant theme may be Threepeat 2.0, but for Bryant personally, another chapter awaits, arguably the most fascinating in career that has been nothing but. One without a definitive starting point, for which he's quietly made preparations over the last few years. Far closer to the end of his career than the beginning, how long can Kobe Bryant remain Kobe Bryant?

Opening his 15th season, Bryant has logged 37,366 minutes over 1,021 games. To that, add another 7,811 minutes and 198 games, about 2.5 seasons worth, of playoff action. Last season, Bryant so resembled the cartoon patient on the Operation board game, his nose practically glowed red. Finger, groin, ankle, back, knee. The accumulated weight was enough to force him out of nine games, the most games he'd missed since the '05-'06 season.

And while an often spectacularly effective playoff run quieted some of the questions, it didn't end them. At 32 years old, having played for so long at such a high level, is Bryant's body finally starting to break down?

73 games. Three fewer than LeBron James, four behind Dwyane Wade. Two more than Chris Bosh, four more than Carmelo Anthony, eleven beyond Danny Granger. Granted, Bryant plays through pain many  players would sit through, but for a 73 game season to cause such a stir speaks more to Bryant's incredible durability over the three seasons prior than clear, tangible signs of physical decline. It's the NBA, players get hurt. Except Kobe hadn't, his apparent invincibility only adding to the significance of each of last season's maladies.

Bryant's body of work has earned him the right to show one season of nagging injuries isn't the canary in the coalmine.

Still, the day will come, because he's fighting for the rest of his career. Time is the only undefeated player in the history of sports. At some point, Bryant's body will break down. Could be sooner, more likely later. Maybe he's part of the lucky minority of superstars willing or able to walk away from the game before time saps his skill, athleticism, and ligaments in whatever combination it finds appropriate. Bryant will enter this season 38th all time in minutes played, and could jump another 15 or so slots with a reasonably healthy season.

Injuries now are different.

As is his challenge, and Bryant knows it.

"You have to be honest with yourself. There's certain things that I could do then that I can't do now," he said last year to Scott Van Pelt on ESPN Radio. "I think once you make that level of assessment, you can still be as effective or as efficient as your team needs you to be. You just have to do it differently, and I think that's the challenge of aging or your body maturing."

As his margin of error shrinks in some areas, Bryant has expanded it in others, deepening his bag of tricks.

“A lot of players, when they lose their athleticism or their athleticism is lower than it once was, they can’t figure it out," Walton says. "That’s what made Jordan so great, that he developed that mid-range post game that couldn’t be stopped. He didn’t need to dunk on people anymore. Kobe, over the last few years, has done the same thing."

For Bryant to continue playing at the level to which he is accustomed will require some luck - no wayward players rolling through an important body part - and a tap deep into his nature. At his core, Bryant is a grinder. One with incredible physical gifts, but a grinder, nonetheless. His will keep him on the court when others might sit, but the durability that has been his trademark is no accident. Jackson, who coached another pretty decent shooting guard earlier in his career, routinely says no player understands and attends to his body better than Kobe.

It's a mastery based on favorable genetics and immense hours of work. A constant barrage of strength and flexibility training, enough ice to build a glacier, the all-night treatments and creative therapies to help an injury that should require 24 hours to heal be functional in 12.

On the floor, Bryant has learned to squeeze out every ounce of his prodigious skill. He'll spend an extra 10 percent of effort to make himself two percent better. Like Jordan, Bryant has developed a nearly unstoppable mid-range game. A summer ago, Bryant worked with Hakeem Olajuwon, owner of perhaps the sweetest feet of any big man in history. Now Kobe's footwork inside is arguably the best in the league, not just among guards.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
To extend his prime, Kobe will need to continue empowering his teammates.

The latest, most tangible example of Bryant-as-grinder came in Game 7 of last year's Finals against the Celtics. Seemingly every fiber of his typically brilliant offensive game betrayed him in an emotional pressure cooker Bryant later admitted got the best of him. Unable to shoot (he missed 18-of-24 attempts), he found other ways to contribute. Bryant grabbed his postseason high in rebounds (15), and nailed 10 of 11 fourth quarter free throws, each seeming to require an almost suffocating amount of mental energy.

"I had to do something," he said after the game. "I mean, I had to rebound the ball. Whatever it takes to win the game. You've got to do whatever it takes. That's my job. Sometimes shots aren't going to fall, but you've got to figure out something to help your team win."

Bad as he was for three quarters - and he was genuinely bad - if he doesn't figure it out in the fourth, it could have been the worst night of his career. Instead, Bryant finished it holding the Larry O'Brien and Bill Russell trophies for the second straight season.

For Kobe to remain Kobe- the scorer, the closer, the difference maker, the jewelry case filler- as long as he (as Los Angeles) would like will require Game 7 will stretched over nights, weeks, months, and years. The ability to endure, keep the mind nimble, blend what he can do with what he should (all while refusing to be nostalgic about aspects of his game that may diminish), and the continuing willingness to make his teammates partners in the process, as Walton described.

The Lakers have faith the meat of this process won't kick off for a few years, yet. They'll pay Bryant over $30 million in the '13-'14 season.

If it's possible to put a price on emotional investment, Lakers fans will spend at least that much. In the meantime, Bryant, operating with a well-earned cushion, works to stay moves ahead in a chess match against and opponent that never loses.

"It is going to be interesting," Walton smiles, "but I’m pretty confident if someone can figure it out, he’ll be the one who will do it.”