Last week, Byron Scott asked Kobe Bryant to be present at home games through the rest of the year. It was absolutely the right thing to do, but nonetheless subjects to a level of Lakers basketball that must feel like a thousand fingernails on a thousand chalkboards — that’s how it feels to everyone else, after all — and, perhaps even worse, puts him in close proximity to media.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Bryant bit the bullet, sitting down with the local chattering class for the first time since dropping 17 assists on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers back on January 15th.
He answered questions about his shoulder (feelin’ good) and his recovery. (For the record, shoulder rehab is way better than Achilles rehab. “I don’t have to lay in bed for a month or two months,” he said, “so my spirits are a lot higher.”)
Nice to hear, of course, but none of that stuff matters all that much given that training camp is about six months away. If Kobe feels discomfort in August, that’s a thing. How he’s feeling in March? Not really.
Kobe again reiterated his trust (because what alternative does he have?) in the Buss family and Mitch Kupchak and generated a few tepid headlines when he said there’s a chance he comes back after his contract expires following next season, even while reiterating what has been his consistent position: After what will be 20 years in the NBA, and three straight summers rehabbing a season ending injury, 2015-16 is the last go round.
“If I feel like doing the process again, if I feel like I’m enjoying getting up and doing the training every single day, and that sort of thing (I’ll play),” he said. “After three years of dealing with this crap, you can kind of understand why I don’t want to deal with that anymore.”
Keeping the door open is far less about wavering on his future than undercutting the farewell tour he’d just as soon avoid.
Tuesday’s most interesting material came when Bryant spoke about how this injury, particularly in conjunction with the last two season-enders, has impacted his psyche. He can talk about coming back healthy this fall, and probably will. Staying that way is a far dicier proposition. Bryant said the shoulder he had repaired was a problem for over a decade, something he hurt in 2001, had operated on a year or two later, and has never stopped being a source of pain.
“It’s not like I was playing too many minutes or whatever the case may be, or played too much the year before, or whatever that situation is,” he said.
Meaning while he can be protected to some degree by minutes restrictions and targeted rest (i.e. exactly the opposite of how he was handled for the first 30 games this year), the nature of nearly two decades of NBA pounding, plus three consecutive season ending injuries, makes it impossible to design a plan — minutes limits, game restrictions, or whatever — that would keep him safe next season. Bubble wrapping cracked valuables only accomplishes so much.
“I guess what I’m saying is that after playing so many years, I could play 10 minutes and hurt some other (stuff). You know what I mean? At this stage, all I can do is just try to do whatever I can to try and be as healthy as possible, then if something’s going to go, it goes,” he said. “Father Time got me. There’s nothing else I can do about it.”
I asked him how hard it is to accept that reality, especially considering how little time he missed in the eight seasons before the Achilles tear.
“It’s very difficult. You start trying to gauge the importance of a Monday workout. Or a Wednesday workout. How really important is it, because I could do all this stuff and then next year in one minute — snaps — it’s all gone,” he replied.
Hearing Bryant speak openly not just about injury risk but the slow, constant assault on his work ethic and drive it creates is fascinating. The mental fatigue is totally understandable but nonetheless sounds jarring, because it’s Kobe. He’s spent most of two decades building an image of tireless, pathological, maniacal dedication to preparation.
Now, Bryant fights a part of his brain saying, “Why bother?”
It’s a question applying to more than the risk of injury. The Lakers will hopefully add a high lottery pick they can put next to Julius Randle, a rising Jordan Clarkson, and anything else they snag in the draft. For the first time in a long time, the Lakers will have a young core of players with a chance to stick around for six or seven seasons. But while that team might garner more interest and enthusiasm from Lakers fans, unless it is buoyed by free agent stars — not likely — they won’t win a lot of games.
There won’t be a storybook ending.
But there will be an ending, promising all at once to be fascinating, weird, celebratory, depressing, and nerve-wracking. Cosmetically, there will be talk of Kobe recruiting free agents this summer, and building a playoff caliber team. Except the lure of playing with Bryant, even accepting the opportunity can be framed as a lure, isn’t strong since nobody knows how much he’ll actually play. And from there, can Kobe really be counted on to be among the best players on a Western Conference playoff team? Once the season rolls around, fans will rightly soak in every play… not easily done while peering through fingers like the audience at a horror movie, waiting for something scary to happen.
Sports rarely allows the participants to write their own ending. At least there are finally healthy signs everyone understands the organization has to start moving beyond Kobe. To his credit Bryant doesn’t seem interested in making it harder than it needs to be. The Lakers have said they won’t mortgage the future for Bryant’s last season. Nobody, Kobe included, disagreed. Kobe has, genuinely I believe, made a priority of handing the keys to the kingdom to a player he believes worthy of the team’s rich heritage.
“I’d much rather hand the keys over to somebody and take this organization right from the jump. Id’ much rather we can. Hopefully we can, but if not when I’ll retire, that’s one of the things I’ll be hell bent on with Jeanie and Jimmy to make sure the franchise gets back to where it needs to be,” he said Tuesday.
Kobe hasn’t complained about the team management has put around him, and isn’t going to. Competitive as he is, I think he’s made some semblance of peace with the circumstances under which he exits the game. (He knew what was coming when he signed the deal.) He knows he may never see the playoffs again. Slogging through rehab would be far easier if there was a championship caliber team waiting at the end of the rainbow. It would be more exciting for fans to see Bryant go out like Tim Duncan, who – whenever he ultimately decides to hang it up – will almost surely do it on a contending team.
All that for Kobe would be preferable, but not necessarily more interesting. Because while there is certainly the money there to motivate him — though if you don’t think the Lakers could/would find a way to make him whole (or close) if he retired, you’re nuts — other massive pieces of fundamental to his winning-is-the-only-thing mythology have been stripped away.
In a lot of ways, it elevates “love of the game” on the list of reasons to continue. You saw it against the Cavs, in the last home game he played this year. Leaning on the scorer’s table with LeBron. Laughing, smiling, appreciating the moment and the opportunity to be in it. Not that Kobe doesn’t care about wins and losses anymore, but his body language was disconnected to the final score.
He was enjoying himself.
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