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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Kobe Bryant Ponders His Basketball Mortality

It happens in the blink of an eye: one minute you are young, naive, raw, eager, wide-eyed and the next minute you are old, world-weary, seasoned, clear-eyed--and you are wondering how the years flew by so quickly.

Was it only yesterday that Kobe Bryant waved off a Karl Malone screen in an All-Star Game? Remember when Bryant shot three air balls at the end of a playoff game versus Utah? Or when he saved the Lakers in the pivotal fourth game of the 2000 NBA Finals after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out, lifting the Lakers to a 3-1 series lead despite being limited by a sprained ankle? Actually, many young NBA fans do not remember any of those things because they were not even born when those things happened.

Bryant's youth is ancient history and the signs of his basketball mortality are popping up with increasing frequency: his right knee is balky, his left Achilles ruptured late last season under the pressure of carrying a poorly coached team filled with indifferent players and now the critics are out in full force, with one survey ranking Bryant as the 25th best NBA player and even the league's general managers demoting Bryant to the NBA's second best shooting guard. Bryant ranked second in minutes (38.6 mpg), third in scoring (27.3 ppg) and third in free throws made (525) last season, so he clearly was a lot better than 25th in the NBA before he got hurt--but his age (35) and especially the Achilles injury cause people to wonder how long Bryant can maintain his lofty status.

Bryant's greatest trait may be his unfailing belief in himself, an incredible self-confidence that once led him to quip to this writer, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." That optimism does not blind Bryant to reality, though; he gets it: he knows that his career is almost over and that it may not end the way that he wants it to end but he is also trying very hard to leave the game on his terms. Here are some quotes from Lee Jenkins' October 21, 2013 Sports Illustrated article about how Bryant is coping with the denouement of one of pro basketball's greatest careers:

"I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it. You rise above it...I don't know how I'm going to come back from this injury. I don't know. Maybe I'll be horse----. Then again, maybe I won't, because no matter what, my belief is that I'm going to figure it out. Maybe not this year or even next year, but I'm going to stay with it until I figure it out."

Bryant is confident but he has no illusions and he has already labeled this phase of his career The Last Chapter: "The book is going to close. I just haven't determined how many pages are left. I'm reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward. I reflect with a purpose."

Bryant does not apologize for how hard he pushes himself and how hard he pushes his teammates: "I can't relate to lazy people. We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you. I don't want to understand you. Go over there. If I drive somebody too hard, and he feels like he's overcommitting to the game and cracks because of it, I don't want to go to battle with him in the seventh game anyway...Some guys don't want this. It's too much. It's too uncomfortable. If that's the case, then we can't play together. It won't work. I believe you need a confrontational crew. If I have to resort to this [shaking his head] instead of telling you that you're being lazy and f------ up, then we'll never resolve anything."

How will Bryant's body respond after Achilles surgery/rehabilitation? Bryant does not pretend to know for sure, but he has a plan: "Maybe I won't have as much explosion. Maybe I'll be slower. Maybe I'll lose quickness. But I have other options. It's like Floyd Mayweather in the ring. There's a reason he's still at the top after all these years. He's the most fundamentally sound boxer of all time. He can fight myriad styles at myriad tempos. He can throw fast punches or off-speed punches, and he can throw them from odd angles."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM

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