LOS ANGELES — For the better part of 36 years, whenever Kobe Bryant has asked something of his body, it responded.
He pushed it through some of the most intense offseason workouts the NBA had ever seen — none other than Phil Jackson said Kobe’s attitude toward training had surpassed Michael Jordan’s — and it got stronger.
He pushed it through hours of footwork drills and repetitive jump shots in an empty gym until those things became muscle memory he could recall in clutch situations.
He told it to ignore the pain of the avulsion fracture in his finger, sore knees that required trips to Germany, hip flexors, and numerous ankle sprains — and it responded with some of the league’s most legendary performances.
However, at age 36 and coming off two major surgeries, Kobe’s body is no longer listening, no longer responding the same way. It is the one sending messages. The first hint was the torn Achilles’ tendon, then the fractured left knee. The latest is a torn rotator cuff that has him out for the rest of this season.
“Eventually, it just catches up to you, man,” said Hall of Fame player and current Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “I’ve been blessed to be in this league a long time, and Kobe’s a great player, but I’ve seen other great players, but when your time’s up your time’s up. It’s too bad, but it happens to everybody.”
McHale is as good an end-of-career comparison as you might find for Kobe.
McHale played through a number of ankle injuries (that required surgery) and debilitating back pain his last few seasons. He could have retired when Larry Bird did in the summer of 1992, but McHale came back for one more go around, doing so on a team that was clearly not a contender.
There was a simple reason for that.
“I wanted to go out playing, and we made it to a playoff series and we lost but I went out playing as hard as I possibly could. I found a little magic in a bottle for a couple weeks and played pretty good, then that was the end of it,” said McHale, who averaged 19.6 points per game on 58 percent shooting during that first-round playoff loss to Charlotte in 1993. “It’s hard. You’re used to being able to do things, you’re used to your body responding, and if you’re a good player you’re used to your body bouncing back and doing a lot of stuff. You never really thought it could not hold up, but at some point it goes down.”
Kobe’s body is going down. He recognizes it, more than some around him seem to.
However, he also wants to leave on his terms, to create his own positive note.
That is where Magic Johnson’s recent comment suggesting Kobe should retire if the Lakers do not sign another star this summer in free agency badly misses the mark — if any player in NBA history should relate to wanting to leave the game on your own terms, it should be Magic. (His comments were more rooted in the Jim Buss/Jeanie Buss power dynamic in the Lakers organization and which side he supports.)
He failed to understand Kobe. Any person that thinks he would — or even could — walk away misses the point as well.
This season has been the first Kobe truly was forced to adjust to the new reality of his body’s age and the miles he put on it. Over the years he’s had to change his diet, been forced to alter his workout routines, but his body always responded. The fall of 2014 was the first time he needed to dial it back a little to be near his peak.
Kobe was ready for that adjustment before Byron Scott, the Lakers legend and new coach who would determine Kobe’s workload. Scott admitted seeing the always supremely conditioned Kobe in training camp led him to believe Kobe could take on more than it turns out his body would allow. Through the first 27 games of the Lakers’ season it wasn’t just the 35 minutes a night Kobe was asked to play, it was the usage rate near 35 percent, right at the top of the league, that wore Kobe down.
The Lakers ran their offense through Kobe. Or as Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding more accurately described it, the Lakers’ offense was a shrine to Kobe. Kobe put up numbers. Early in the season Kobe led the league in scoring, but he wasn’t efficient, shooting less than 40 percent (for this season he shot 37.3 percent).
“I thought his workload was too much,” Scott said looking back at those first 27 games. “He had a (minutes) number, my number was higher but his number was right, you know, when I look back at it. … The beginning, us getting on the same page and me getting to know him, what he could take and what he could stand as a minutes standpoint on a night-to-night basis was something that I had to get used to.”
Scott admitted he got fooled by his eyes.
“I didn’t take into serious consideration him missing almost a whole year and now getting back and playing,” Scott said. “I should have figured out that would take a little time. But watching his workouts and watching what great shape he was in I think I got a little too confident, expecting that he could handle those type of minutes. And like I said, I was wrong. …
“You may think it’s not a lot — if it’s a minute or two or three minutes, it doesn’t make much of a difference — but in the long run it does.”
It’s not in Kobe’s nature to turn down the extra minutes, the extra workload, but all of it did catch up with him. On Dec. 17, during four days off for the Lakers, Kobe went hard in practice trying to spur his teammates. Then 48 hours later, after a game against Oklahoma City, he admitted fatigue was the reason he shot 3-of-15 and missed the potential game-winning jumper. Two nights later he shot 8-of-30 against the Kings.
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Two days after that, Dec. 23, he took a game off. Then came the ultimate sign he was accepting his body needed rest — he sat out the Lakers showcase Christmas Day game against the Bulls.
“Old age,” Kobe said of why he sat out the only day of the year Santa works. “My knees are sore. My Achilles are sore — both of them. My metatarsals are tight. My back is tight. I just need to kind of hit the reset button. …
“It’s extremely difficult, especially playing here, playing on Christmas Day and playing in this city. I love playing here. The fans have always been great. There’s always a lot of energy in the building. At the same time, I’ve just got to try to be smart. It’s really going against my nature, but I’ve got to be smart about this.”
Along with accepting that his body needed rest came accepting there needed to be a change in how he led his team. It was no longer going to be as simple as taking over a practice in a Jordanesque manner, challenging guys to push themselves closer to his level. He did that before the Oklahoma City game and the results were not pretty.
Kobe said it was foreign to him to have to think about his body this much and in this way.
“Of course … It’s frustrating but I have to figure it out,” Bryant said back after that loss to Oklahoma City.“It’s a balancing act, just figuring out when to do it (practice hard to push teammates) and when it’s not. We’re just trying to figure out proper rest and that stuff.”
But don’t for a second think this changes Kobe’s leadership style — he believes in keeping guys on edge. Look at what he told Ahmad Rashad in an exclusive sit-down interview that will air on NBA TV (and be on NBA.com) during All-Star Weekend.
“Leadership is lonely. It is, but that’s fine. I’m not going to be afraid of confrontation to get us where we need to go …
“There’s a big misconception that people think winning or success comes from everybody putting their arms around each other and singing Kumbaya, and patting them on the back when they mess up, and that’s just not a reality. If you’re going to be a leader you’re not going to please everybody and you’e got to hold people accountable. Even if you have that moment of being uncomfortable.”
Nor should his injuries change Kobe’s style, says Chauncey Billups, another legendary locker-room leader who had to battle through injuries at the end of his career but was brought into teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers to help teach a young team to win.
“No, it doesn’t,” Billups told me during All-Star weekend about whether his injuries changed the way he tried to lead. “The way you lead is who you are. It’s who you are no matter if you’re coming to the game in a suit, you’re on the sidelines cheering guys on, or if you’re dressed to play. That’s just who you are, it’s instinctual.
“So no, (an injury) doesn’t change the way you lead. Not at all.”
Kobe Bryant’s leadership style may be the same, but he is changing.
That is something more evident than ever this season. He has been more open with the media, talking with them casually (cameras and recorders off) before games occasionally, discussing current events or being a parent. He’s closer to the age of most of the media members in the locker room than his teammates.
More than that, he’s trying to let the fans into his world. This is no longer the 2006 Kobe of the “love me or hate me” Nike ad where he said people just had to respect him. This new Kobe is the one who brings a camera into the meeting with the doctor who tells him his rotator cuff is torn and going to require surgery, and then puts that video up online. This new Kobe is the one who goes on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and tells the story of the two making a beer run at a party together when they were both underage — then pulling the “I’m a Laker” card to get the guy to sell to him. This new Kobe is the one who has a documentary coming out at the end of February, one where he promises to speak honestly about his career.
This is Kobe is thinking about his legacy.
And part of that is how he leaves the game.
Despite the speculation, Kobe isn’t going to play in any other colors than Lakers’ purple and gold; he will retire a Laker. It’s tempting to talk about him maybe chasing ring No. 6, jumping to a contender for less money and accepting a lesser role to try and tie Jordan’s ring count. We’ve seen other stars do this.
Except that Kobe is incredibly protective of his brand and he loves the idea of playing with one team his entire career, something few others on the all-time greats list have done. Become a mercenary for a year and you hurt that brand. Kobe watched the Michael Jordan Wizards years and learned the lesson.
Could he play one more year with the Lakers after this two-year contract? Only if he believes he’s playing at an elite level and the team is one that can help positively shape that legacy.
“If I can’t do that, I’ll call it quits,” Kobe said. “I’m not going to have you guys see me out there looking like s—-.”
Kobe doesn’t smile a lot during post game interviews, especially after a loss. He still takes those personally. But throw in a question about his family and a brightness comes to his face. You can see that’s his love, his highest priority.
Family is now the escape from troubles that the basketball court used to be.
Kobe has matured. He’s ready for what is next in his life.
But he’s still writing that final chapter of his basketball book.
He wants that chapter to end with our hero going out on his terms. Kobe wants to leave the game playing well.
We will see if he can bend the will of the basketball gods one final time and make that happen.