Many years ago, when Kobe Bryant's games were filled with explosive attacking moves and windmill dunks, the work he put into stretching, ice baths, massages and the like between games was "zero," in his estimation.
Now that he is 37, with an injury history in nearly every major joint, plus a staggering 56,000-plus total NBA minutes on his resume, things could hardly be more different.
"The kid has got a lot of miles on him," says Los Angeles Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, in his 32nd season with the team. "And they're hard miles. They're hard miles. If you've ever been to Maui, the Road to Hana? It's a rough road, man. It's beautiful when you get there, but it's a rough road."
Bryant's days are stuffed with an ever-evolving and carefully curated series of treatments designed to minimize injury and maximize performance, including submerging himself in icy water and lying on tables while an array of experts go to work. There is also physical therapy, which often involves digging at his legs with a $3,500 device resembling a small jackhammer.
The Lakers employ a large staff of physical therapists, trainers and massage therapists, some of whom say their main focus is Bryant. But Bryant consumes so much time and refined expertise, at all hours, that he has long supplemented with outside experts, including a neuromuscular therapist, two chiropractors (one in Orange County, where he lives, and another in Los Angeles), an active-release therapist from Oceanside in San Diego County, several "stretch professionals" and a personal strength-and-conditioning trainer.
If Bryant is to complete his 20th (and final) season, it's because all of those professionals have done their jobs well, teasing explosive potential from Bryant's aging body.
"There's rooms that he goes to and people are there and things happen," Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers' head strength and conditioning coach for the past five seasons, says with a laugh. "So much is done behind the scenes that are behind the scenes."
There is no normal game-day routine for Kobe Bryant, and members of the Lakers' training staff who tend to Bryant on a daily basis -- some of whom have done so for his entire career -- say they cannot emphasize that point enough.
There is only, the team's specialists add, how Bryant is feeling that day, which varies.
Both Bryant and the specialists often call this stage "uncharted territory," because no guard has played this long, and it's all but unheard of for an athlete to still play after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon, let alone do so at his age. Add it all up, and there's no blueprint to follow.
It would probably be easier for all involved if Bryant, who played in his record 16th Christmas Day game Friday night against the Clippers, merely wished just to remain upright and serviceable, but that isn't the case. "It's tough. He wants to ride out at a high level, not in a nice way, but at a high level," says Dr. Judy Seto, the Lakers' head physical therapist. "It's not enough to just be out there. He needs to play the way he plays. Otherwise, for him, what's the point?"
So every day is, as Bryant often calls it, a "puzzle" for both him and the staff. What must they assemble? Him.
He consistently calls keeping his body in order an "all-day process," and if there is a normal game day, or something that's even in the same ballpark, it typically begins long before Bryant even arrives at the arena in the midafternoon, when he meets with a personal trainer to target whatever body part (or parts) ail him at that very moment.
Bryant's toes, feet, Achilles tendons, especially the left one that he ruptured in April 2013, are often stretched. Resistance band exercises for his knees and ankles help improve range of motion, gauged with an arthrodial protractor, helping suggest treatment and measure improvements in flexibility of ligaments and muscles.
Then Bryant travels to the arena, often arriving at some point between two and four hours before tipoff, giving him plenty of time to complete a gauntlet of therapies.
Initially, Bryant might work himself into a lather on the court through his shooting routine, make a quick stop in the weight room, or ice down; his routine varies depending on how he's feeling. But, typically, he first meets with Seto, who joined the Lakers in a consulting role in 1990 and is now in her fifth full-time season. To help improve his range of motion or correct any alignment that might be off, she will focus on his neck, shoulders, knees, ankles or any specific spot that Bryant says needs some work. "I take his feedback and take it from there," she says. The whole session lasts 10 to 15 minutes, as anything longer might fatigue his muscles.
Then, about a half-hour before the game, Bryant will meet with Marko Yrjovuori, the Lakers' sports massage therapist for the past 12 seasons who is more commonly known as "Finn," a nod to his Finnish roots.
Yrjovuori will help stretch Bryant's limbs for about 20 minutes, with about 80 percent of the focus on Bryant's lower body. He'll also use a hand-held percussion device called The Raptor, which can penetrate several layers of muscle with up to 3,600 percussions per minute to help shake Bryant's muscles awake.
Not long before tip, Bryant meets with DiFrancesco. As Bryant listens to Lakers' coaches discuss pregame strategy, he works with DiFrancesco for a five-minute session of hip and glute exercises -- often using a resistance band -- to help "activate" his lower body.
(For road games, DiFrancesco also makes sure that at a predetermined time before the game that Bryant receives bone broth specially made by the chefs at the team hotel.)
Bryant's pregame process might last 40 minutes, a churn from one activity to the next. While his teammates are gabbing in the locker room, he can often be found in a back room, his body being kneaded, stretched, loosened and otherwise prepared in some form or fashion.
The order is crucial.
"You don't want them to do strengthening work if they're out of alignment," Seto says. "You want to get them in alignment first and then activate the muscle and then do a little bit more strengthening before they get on the court." Members of the Lakers' training staff must also work with other Lakers players before the game, but as expected, they say that Bryant is the priority.
"He's the main focus," Yrjovuori says.
"His last game, it's going to be sad for everybody. [It's like], 'What am I going to do from now on?'"Marko Yrjovuori, the Lakers' sports massage therapist
The work doesn't stop there. During games, Lakers coach Byron Scott tries -- though he doesn't always succeed -- to stagger Bryant's minutes, so that Bryant plays about 30 -- or around there -- but doesn't spend long stretches on the bench, lest his legs become stiff. And even when he's on the bench, Bryant has tried to stay loose, as well.
For instance, during a Dec. 2 win over the Wizards in Washington, where Bryant scored a season-high 31 points on 10-of-24 shooting in 36 minutes, he ran in place and bounced up and down on the sideline when he wasn't in the game.
Afterward, Bryant jokingly compared himself to the over-the-top exercises Jim Carrey's zany character did before a basketball game in the movie "Cable Guy."
"During a game, I just try to move around as much as possible," Bryant says. "Normally, when you sit on the bench, you try to rest your legs. It's like, f--- that. Rest ain't gonna make no difference -- if I can't move, it's not going to f---ing matter.'"
After games, Bryant's sessions with various Lakers specialists are lighter and shorter, with an emphasis on relaxing his muscles, rather than activating them. And, as he does following practices, Bryant will ice his knees and shoulders. (Seto points out that Bryant is "certainly utilizing the cold tub" a lot more.) He also will drink chocolate milk -- a low-sugar blend of organic cocoa and whole milk from grass-fed cows that's specially prepared by a Whole Foods based in whichever NBA city the team is in.
It might seem like a lot of work for maybe 30 minutes of floor time, but every aspect of Bryant's preparation for and recovery from games has never been more crucial.
"They have a greater effect, a greater consequence, a greater benefit," Seto says. "Maybe because you're so flexible when you're younger, you can spring [and] maybe you don't see that big a benefit in stretching, rest and recovery, icing, all of that. You can get away with eating unhealthy. Now, as you're getting older, it makes a huge difference. That little 2 to 3 percent difference as you're getting older is huge."
For those who work with Bryant daily, the importance of each step is even more magnified as he nears the end of his storied career.
"I know his last game is coming," Seto says. "But it doesn't change what I've been doing with him, because it's been working."
As Yrjovuori explains, "It's an honor to be part of it. His last game, it's going to be sad for everybody. [It's like], 'What am I going to do from now on?'"
Bryant says all of his various specialists have different fortes. For example, one chiropractor might specialize in one area, while the other favors a different approach.
"That's why I have multiple ones, so I can balance out what my body needs," Bryant says. "If it's something for the lower extremity, this guy does it better. If it's something [else], this guy may do it better. It's like putting a puzzle together."
So many of those pieces are put in place before Bryant reaches the arena.
"He's constantly doing things," Vitti says. "Then he comes in and he's getting fine-tuned."
As Seto explains, "Because of the work that he puts in before, on a day-to-day basis, it takes less time to get him ready."
Bryant is responsible for speeding up that process: One aspect that members of the Lakers' training staff each praised was Bryant's knowledge not only of his own body but also of medical minutia in general, which helps him specify what exactly he needs adjusted on a given day.
"Over the years, he's paid attention to what people would say to him," Vitti says. "So he knows what iliotibial band syndrome is. He knows what the quadratus lumborum is. He knows what the erector spinae is. He'll come in and say, 'I need this released.' A lot of guys, they don't want to know all that ... but he wants to know. 'What are you doing? What is that?' He's always been that way. You've got to give him credit for that."
Another element that Vitti praised is Bryant recently adopting Fusionetics, a sports science-infused injury prevention and recovery enhancement/performance improvement program founded by physical therapist Dr. Mike Clark that is used by several professional teams.
"I think in the last year, Kobe has finally bought into this Fusionetics thing, and his training has become much better, in my opinion," Vitti says.
"He's always spent a lot of time on his body. But, just like anything else, especially at this level, it's not enough to do a lot. It's not enough to work hard. You've got to work smart. And he is really working smart right now."
"The single greatest thing that stops people from exercising as they age is lack of flexibility. So you can see him stiffening up."Gary Vitti
"I'm behind him 100 percent with the way he's training now and I haven't always felt that way, because when you don't train right, you actually train yourself into default position, which makes it harder for us to get you out of it."
Vitti added, "Breaking through the wall, working harder, harder, harder -- not anymore. If you keep training into fatigue, then you're going to train yourself into that position. That's what we're trying to get you out of."
Bryant calls Fusionetics "extremely helpful."
That Bryant is working with outside trainers or experts is not unusual by any stretch.
"He's always gone outside the loop, not 100 percent, but he's always had his own guy, partially because he's on his own time schedule," Vitti says. "If he wants to go work out at 2 in the morning, I can't have Tim [doing that]. He's got 14 other guys to be responsible for. So Kobe needs somebody who's willing to do that. As a result, not all these guys last. He burns through them."
Yrjovuori smiled and says, "For us, it's impossible with our schedules already, but for the people that he uses, it's a hell of a challenge.
Yrjovuori then shook his head and laughed.
"I've had my share of late-night phone calls," he says. "I've done my share of drives down to Orange County."
DiFrancesco says Bryant's workload "is already more than most could handle," but now he goes through these tedious processes just about every day.
"It's tough, but I love the game, though," Bryant says. "It doesn't matter what you have to go through. When you're willing to go through a very tedious process for something, meaning that's when you know you really, really love it. I don't mind it."
His approach is a stark turnaround from his early NBA days, Bryant says: "I come in the gym and windmill [dunk] like nothing. Now I've got to stretch to touch the backboard. I [could] literally come in here and wake up, get out of bed and do [360-degree dunks]. How crazy is that?"
As Seto explains, "Before, he could give it his all and he'd recover the next day, no big deal. And then do it again, no big deal. Because he could recover. Now, it's let's see how you're doing tomorrow, because we're not sure how you're going to recover. Then we're going to have to wait until the next day happens."
As time has passed, Bryant has changed, because he's had no other choice if he wanted to continue his career.
"He was so talented and so driven throughout his career that maybe not everything had to work right in his body," Vitti says. "But now that he can't do it anymore, in order to even play at the level that he's playing, he has to do everything right, and he realizes that. And somehow he's found his way."
For much of this season, it didn't look like Bryant would find his way at all.
Following a mid-November win against the Detroit Pistons in which he logged 36 minutes, Bryant stood at his locker and declared, "I can barely stand up. My feet and legs are killing me." He later added, "I'm not looking forward to the walk to the car."
Before that game -- and certainly after -- Bryant complained about his legs, and it was clear that they couldn't provide the lift on his jump shot, which led to many of his shots hitting nothing but air, including several throughout various games.
"As you get older, you get stiffer," Vitti says. "The single greatest thing that stops people from exercising as they age is lack of flexibility. So you can see him stiffening up. You can see he doesn't have the same speed. He doesn't have the same lift on his jump shot. It's harder for that ball to get to the basket when you're using your upper extremity instead of your lower extremity to launch." Though determined to play in every game of his final season, Bryant's body clearly wasn't cooperating. In his first 17 games, he shot 29.6 percent from the field on 17.9 field-goal attempts per game.
That trend turned Dec. 7 in Toronto, where Bryant posted his first game of 50 percent shooting (8 of 16) of the season. Over the next seven games, Bryant's minutes and shots went down, and his percentage shot up to 48.2. Bryant pointed to a Dec. 11 game against San Antonio when he felt like he turned the corner, because his legs felt fresh when he expected them to be weary toward the end of an eight-game road trip.
All along, Bryant has preached that he just needed to find his rhythm after being sidelined for nearly nine months following a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder (among the injuries that have kept him on the shelf for the better part of the past three seasons).
"I think it's a combination of everything," he explains. "It's not like [I'm] doing something in the moment in time. But I think it's over a period and being consistent -- being consistent with the stretching, being consistent with the hydration, nutrition and with the ice baths and the therapy and things like that. I think a combination of all those things over a period of time will get your body in a very solid place, which is where I'm at right now, and hopefully I can stay there."
And just as Bryant comes to grips with how he must maintain his body and what it can do at this point, he has also had to accept everything that is physically slipping away, even though he remains mentally sharp.
"That's 100 percent correct," he says. "Stuff that you're used to doing -- 'I'm just going to go by this guy' -- it's like, 'Wait a minute. Nah, I can't do that. F--- it, I'm just going to back 'em down.'
"That's true, though. Your mind can see certain things going on, when in the past, it was just one step and get there. Now, you can't. You've got to figure out a new way to get to the same spot."
On days when he doesn't play a game, Bryant says he focuses on stretching, and he will hop on the treadmill and run for about five or six minutes between 8 mph to 11 mph "just to keep my legs going" and the blood flowing.
He also says he hits the weights three or four times a week. The sweat-filled sessions feature plenty of resistance band training, weight jackets and the like. DiFrancesco has described past workouts as lasting between 20 to 40 minutes, being "extremely quiet and focused" and including "traditional strength-building exercises: deadlift variation, squat variation, lunge variation, upper-body press variation, row variation, chin-ups."
In terms of massages and more physical therapy, Bryant says he works plenty on off days with Seto, along with a couple of his other physical therapists. Sessions can last about 30 minutes and might begin around 10 a.m., usually focus on joints from the hips to his right shoulder and more, with the goal being to maximize mobility and stretch brittle ligaments.
Then comes ice, perhaps the most regular recovery activity. He'll ice his shoulders, knees, toes, with each part requiring a different amount of time, perhaps around 15 minutes.
Everything is geared toward making sure his body holds up enough so that he can take the court again for the next game, but there's only so much that can be done.
"I have concerns," Vitti says. "I'm not concerned about his Achilles tendon that he tore, and I'm not concerned about his rotator cuff that he tore, but he has another Achilles tendon and he has two patella tendons. And you've got another rotator cuff.
Then Vitti offered an analogy:
A young player is traveling down a road and accidentally falls into a hole, but the player recovers. As the player matures, he learns which roads have holes and how to get around them carefully -- or if it's best to take a different road altogether.
"I think that's what he's trying to figure out," Vitti says, "How can I get to the same place but in a different way?"
How does one do that?
"We don't really know," Vitti says. "It's uncharted territory."
The end of the road is near, and there is a distant question of how Bryant's body will hold up many years down the line, given all that he has put it through in the past 20.
"Almost all NBA players are on some kind of workers' compensation later on in life," Vitti says. "Basically, they wear out the articulating cartilage in their knees. That's what we end up calling osteoarthritis. Almost all these guys, hip and knee issues, later on in life. He has some [cartilage] issues from playing. And that may come back and haunt him down the road, we'll see."
Has Bryant looked that far ahead? He has.
"Yeah, I've given it plenty of thought," Bryant says. "I tend to feel pretty comfortable that my body is going to feel OK because of how I feel now, and I'm still putting so much stress on it. I feel pretty comfortable with that. I've had some really serious injuries, but they haven't been -- knock on wood -- back-related. The back is always something that scares the s--- out of me. So, fortunately I haven't had that. Other injuries have been injuries that I've been able to repair."
While he has been searching for a healthy, sustainable balance, Bryant has also been taking what he calls "baby steps" to see what he's capable of, even during games.
"You're so used to pushing on the gas pedal, and it's there and it's been limitless," says Seto. "Now, it's not limitless. During a game, it's hard to know -- from game to game, back-to-back, on the road -- where the 'E' is that day. It's tough to know."
Every day is now a search to see what Bryant can offer on that particular day without overdoing it.
"He's trying to keep things in reserve, but we don't know how much you have in your tank," Seto says. "It's like, 'How do you know how much you have in reserve?' He's trying to find it."
As Bryant explains, "It's impossible to gauge, because you don't know what's left. You don't know where that needle goes to the point where now the engine jumps out the car. So you've got to take baby steps, incrementally."
Bryant then points to the Dec. 17 loss against the Houston Rockets.
"If you watch the Houston game, there was the first drive, where I went by Trevor [Ariza] and laid it up," he says. "That was the first drive I took all season where I really exploded to the rim. I laid it up and I went, 'That felt good.' That was a baby step.
"I got back in the huddle. I said, 'I felt good. Maybe I can dunk one.'
"Then when I had the opportunity again, I tried it."
And so he did, throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk that brought the Staples Center crowd to its collective feet.
"It's like a step-by-step [process]," Bryant says.
"It's crazy to have to think about it.
"Back in the day ..."
Then his voice trails off, and he smiles.