Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Kobe Bryant balances the scales
By Brian Kamenetzky
Kobe Bryant's effectiveness after all this time is surely a byproduct of the effort he puts in to being ready.
It started with basic ballhandling drills, the kind you probably did at your summer basketball camp in middle school. Head up, hard dribbles in different rhythms. Then he moved just above the free throw line, and snapped the ball between his legs. One dribble, left hand to the right, rising for the jumper. Then right hand through to left, then back through to the right. Jumper.
And another, and another.
Periodically, he'd lose his handle, misplaying the dribble or seeing it fly from his hands as he went up to shoot. Or he'd miss. Whatever the mistake, it generally was followed by the scowl we could all recognize in our sleep.
From there, he moved to the perimeter, taking jumper after jumper, a few steps inside the 3-point line. From the corner, then the right wing -- capped with a baby fist pump after the last fell through the net -- and continuing around the arc. At one point, he made eight straight from the left wing.
Finally, a cooldown at the free throw line.
All told, it was more than half an hour of extra work following a long and spirited practice and scrimmage, and a taste of what Kobe Bryant does to maintain an elite level of play entering his 17th NBA season. The idea behind the supplementary workouts, said Lakers development coach Phil Handy, is to improve his handle and hand speed. In the process, the hope is Bryant can get his shot off faster and with less resistance, saving his legs in the process.
"He asked me to work on it," Handy told me after practice. "He's the type of guy that whatever he can do to help his game evolve, he's going to do it."
As he was quick in pointing out while speaking with the media Tuesday, there wasn't anything particularly new in Bryant's comments to Ken Berger of CBS Sports. But whenever Kobe talks candidly about retirement, particularly when it comes with more indications he very well might hang 'em up once his current contract expires following the 2013-14 season, it's news. Not surprisingly, Bryant spent much of a lengthy post-practice (and pre-workout) media Q&A talking about the not-so-distant future.
He has played 42,377 minutes in the regular season and another 8,641 in the playoffs. Since spending 16 games in street clothes during the '04-'05 campaign, he has missed a grand total of 24 and has spent recent summers suiting up for USA Basketball. Still, Bryant said Tuesday his body feels great, better than any point since "probably '06." The physical grind he can handle. "You know what you have to adjust to. Whether it's a knee injury or an ankle injury, whatever it is, you make those adjustments physically, you change your regimen a little bit," he said.
The major difficulty "is the mental part," he said. "The mentality of preparing year in and year out; it's been 17 years and every offseason has been more work than the regular season. It's a lot of work."
Over the years, in an effort to create a greater edge over his competition, Bryant has tweaked everything from how he eats to how he recovers after games to the technology he wears on his feet. Still, if he is to maintain an elite level -- and he flatly refuses to consider playing at anything less -- Bryant must consistently hone those parts of his game compensating for the natural erosion in his athleticism. He balances the scales with smarts, fundamentals and discipline as the pure explosiveness fades, and every year adds more to one side as a little is shaved from the other.
As demonstrated Tuesday, he compensates with more work.
As Kobe was hoisting his extra jumpers, new assistant coach Steve Clifford walked past. I asked if this sort of thing was normal, if over his decade-plus on NBA benches, Clifford had seen veteran stars like Kobe put in this kind of time. I barely got the question out of my mouth.
"Not like him," Clifford said. "He's unbelievable."
But at some point, the drive wanes or the work, no matter how consistent or innovative, can no longer overcome Father Time. Kobe Bryant has spent about half his life in the NBA and, as he has pointed out, will have played 18 years if he walks away after next season. That's an extraordinarily long career, particularly for a guard, particularly for one with Kobe's lofty standards. His calculations on the amount of sand left in the hourglass seem based on a logical calculus as much as any hard and fast understanding that in two years, he won't want to play anymore.
Here's a hypothetical. Let's say the Lakers win one title over the next two seasons. Kobe stays healthy and continues performing at a high level. Management figures out a way to keep a championship-level roster together for the 2014-15 season, giving Bryant a real chance to pass Michael Jordan and help the Los Angeles Lakers and Dr. Jerry Buss push past the Boston Celtics' total title count. Would he really walk away?
I have no idea.
But he could, because as he displayed in a little slice Tuesday, for Kobe Bryant to remain Kobe Bryant requires an incredible amount of effort. If at that point he can no longer do it effectively or no amount allows him to play in the way he's accustomed, he'll walk.
He has and continues to sacrifice a great deal in pursuit of championships, but in that Bryant won't compromise.