- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- Kobe Bryant was back in his hometown of Philadelphia on Saturday. It's the place he came into this world in the summer of 1978, back when his dad, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played alongside a legion of legends in Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Darryl Dawkins.
The Los Angeles Lakers had the day off in advance of their game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, so Bryant -- already a Lakers legend in his own right -- made the nine-mile drive from downtown Philly to the only alma mater he can claim, Lower Merion High School, nestled in the city's western suburbs.
It's the place Bryant first became a champion, capturing a state title, and doing so while doing what he does best -- scoring a ton of points. He even broke Wilt Chamberlain's Southeastern Pennsylvania high school scoring record (with 2,883 points to Chamberlain's 2,252) in his four years at Lower Merion.
(So, even though Wilt's got him beat 100-81 in terms of the top single-game scoring feat, Bryant certainly deserves mention in the same basketball stratosphere as the Big Dipper.)
As Bryant looked across the current crop of teenagers playing for Aces coach Gregg Downer (who is still manning the sidelines for L.M. some 17 seasons after he last coached Bryant in 1996, just like Bryant's still chugging along in the NBA 17 years later) and couldn't help but wonder.
"Did I look that young?" Bryant said after the Lakers' 111-98 win over his dad's Sixers on Sunday night. The 34-year-old guy who was 17 years old when he entered the league had just scored 34 points in the victory, 17 years after he was last wearing Lower Merion maroon and white instead of Lakers purple and gold.
And the answer is yes, he did look that young.
"He's grown into an adult now," Downer said. "He no longer has the baby face."
His face may have hardened, but his eyes still light up the same way they did back in the day when he talks about the game he loves. And his body may now succumb to mortal realities such as the back spasms he played through earlier in the week, but he's still leading the league in scoring against guys as young or even younger than Philadelphia's best player in 22-year-old Jrue Holiday.
Bryant extended his streak of scoring 30 or more points to six games with his 12-for-21 performance against the Sixers, continuing to display his mastery of the game after becoming just the third player over the age of 34 in NBA history to do it five games in a row, joining Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with his 30 in a win against Washington on Friday.
"They're geniuses," Sixers coach Doug Collins said of Bryant and Jordan.
Collins is uniquely qualified to talk about the two, seeing as he was a teammate of Bryant's dad on the Sixers and also coached Jordan both when he was a young Chicago Bull and an old Washington Wizard.
"They've seen everything," Collins continued, describing how Bryant and Jordan stayed so good for so long. "They don't waste any energy. They know, from night to night, who is guarding them, where they want the ball, how they want to get it there, where they want their teammates when they get it. They're brilliant. They just don't go out and play. There's a sense of purpose to everything they're doing. That's why when you have guys like this, you so admire just how they do their job."
Geniuses are sometimes misunderstood and for as many admirers as Bryant has had, there have always been the detractors right there joining in the cacophony of opinion.
But Bryant has done it his way. He's not about to apologize for a career that already has seen him translate his high school success to the pro level, winning five championships while becoming one of only five players in league history to score 30,000 points in the process.
Bryant felt empowered Sunday. Not only had the Lakers started to turn the corner by salvaging a 2-2 road trip with the first two-game winning streak of Mike D'Antoni's tenure with the team, they did it with Bryant continuing to play his game his way.
"I like shooting," Bryant said. "I don't care how it comes. I like putting them up. It doesn't matter how it comes. I'm being honest."
The Lakers aren't fixed yet, even with their two wins in a row they still sit at just 11-14, including a sad 4-8 road record, but they're coming around. Pau Gasol is expected to return from tendinitis as soon as Tuesday against Charlotte. Steve Nash (fractured fibula) isn't too far behind Gasol and could be back the following game against Golden State.
As all the changes between injuries and coaches went down this season, Bryant stayed the same even when the Lakers started off the season 1-11 in games when he scored 30 points or more. That should have been seen as a product of teammates not stepping up more than as an indictment of Bryant anyway. They're now 3-11 when Bryant goes for 30-plus after the past two games.
Bryant's psyche was impenetrable, not by a silly stat, not by being called a ball hog, not by anything.
"I wouldn't say I'm a ball hog. I'm a shooter," Bryant said, continuing with his 20-minute postgame media session when he described his love for scoring points the way a millionaire describes every one of the dollars he has made. "I don't necessarily hog the ball, but I put them up though."
There was more: "I definitely much rather shoot it than pass it. That's just how I am."
And more: "I'm a scorer, man. You don't get 30,000 points without knowing how to put yourself in positions to shoot it. The ball just finds scorers and I can always, no matter what system you're in, you can always find a way. Getting up 30 shots ain't easy. A lot of people don't know how to do that."
And even more: "That's what I do. It's like superheroes. Superman can fly. Spider-Man has webs. Steve [Nash] can pass. I shoot. I get 'em up! I make no bones about it. That's what I do. That's what I do. Some nights they fall, some nights they don't. But, [Dennis] Rodman was a rebounder, Coop [Michael Cooper] was a defender, I'm a shooter." With that, he added a laugh.
It was appropriate Bryant let it all out there surrounded by the setting of Philadelphia. It was where Kobe became Kobe. Where "The Mamba" was hatched. Where he won't get too many more chances to play so he might as well enjoy it all -- the trip, the people, the fans, the adulation, the boos.
"Unless we see each other in the [NBA] Finals, next year could be my last time," Bryant said of playing in Philadelphia. "It's pretty crazy."
They say one definition of crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Bryant certainly didn't want his results to change as he has crept up in age -- he still wishes to be defined as a winner No. 1 and a scorer No. 1A -- so he has had to change the things he repeatedly does to maintain that identity, even giving up his favorite Philly meal in the process as he has streamlined his diet.
"I feel like I can run all day long," Bryant said. "A lot of that has to do with just diet and really being committed to it and watching what I eat. I mean, I came to Philly and didn't eat a cheesesteak. That's like that never happens."
But Bryant made the sacrifice to make sure the natural effects of aging never happen to his game before he's ready to walk away.
"My competitive spirit right now comes from I feel like every middle-aged man that just feels like your body is slowing down and it's like younger guys are passing you up," Bryant said. "Stuff like that just really keeps me on edge and keeps me pushing."
Pushing for more points. Pushing for more rings. Pushing the only way this Philly guy knows how until he can't push anymore.
For Kobe Bryant, a return to Philly delivers a rejuvenation on his spirits and a Lakers victory.