We're not going to tell you that the Black Mamba is lying in wait. No, we'll leave that to hacky magazines, and writers quick to forget what several other teams and players have done over the course of 2010-11.
What we can relay to you is the fact that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant gutted through a miserable year this season. His usage rate needlessly shot up as he assumed too much of his team's offense, routinely, all while rarely practicing due to an extremely painful left knee injury that requires constant care, and constant (hide your eyes) draining of the fluid that builds up due to overuse.
Save for the 2004-05 season, Bryant has been in the playoffs every year since he entered the league in 1996-97; and for history's sake let's remind that this was a year that saw the normally hirsute Shaquille O'Neal fail miserably in growing a goatee because Shaq was way too young. Not only that, but Kobe has played deep into the playoffs most of those years, at worse running seven and then five games into a first-round series in 2006 and 2007; 48,310 total minutes played, if you count postseason minutes. And Kobe does.
Things are catching up, though. Kobe's Lakers, I'm sorry, should be in the Finals right now. And while there were other factors to blame for his team's second-round loss, it's hard to get away from the fact that Bryant seemed powerless at stopping the Dallas Mavericks while he went away from his team's offense to hoist jumper after long jumper. 2011-12, whenever it happens, will loom large.
And Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, as has been the case since 1984, will help the luminous loom. He'll be the guy working with Kobe, as he has since Bryant was 17, helping Bryant attempt to return to form.
Last week, Mike Trudell sat down for an engaging Q and A with Vitti, going over all things mostly Kobe, and detailing what will be a painful, and exacting rehab.
MT: OK then, circling back to Kobe … it seems obvious, but how tough is he?
Vitti: Kobe is the toughest player that I've ever worked with in any sport. It's a fact. Kobe, no matter what happens to him, tries to figure out a way to play with it. Maybe his greatest asset is when he steps on the floor, he focuses on the task of playing basketball, instead of focusing on the injury. For instance, somebody tweaks or rolls their ankle and is still on the court trying to play, but they keep looking down at their ankle. Well, looking down at it isn't going to make it feel any better. You can look at it all you want, it's not going to change. But obviously, the fact that they're looking down at it means they're focusing on it. Kobe seems to be able to block that pain out. The ankle still hurts, but he doesn't focus on it. He focuses on catching and shooting, the tasks of the game.
Now, this swings both ways. You certainly don't want a player handicapping his team as he drags a leg around, and even if 80 percent of Kobe is still better than 80 percent of the NBA, this still isn't the smartest thing to do.
And yet, for years, Bryant has made it work. Our main criticism, for his entire career, has been about his shot selection, which we believe betrays his immense basketball smarts. So it goes. So he goes.
MT: I'd imagine that he has considerably more leeway than anyone else?
Vitti: That's right. You have to trust him, for the most part, and that's just not the same trust level you have with everybody else. I don't know how to tell you that I know, but I know. I just know. He looks at me, I look at him. We've only had maybe one or two episodes where we've (butted heads). I can't remember where we were, but he sprained his thumb. It looked pretty bad, and he came to the bench and said, "Tape my thumb." I go, "Let me take a look at it." He says, "Just tape it!" We kinda went back and forth, because I didn't want to put him out there with an unstable thumb, because if he really hurt it, it could be a serious issue. So he kinda yelled at me, and I yelled back at him, and I kinda just looked at him, and said, "Hey, I'm your guy," and gave him a little head butt, which kinda snapped him into reality that I needed to look at it. I looked at it, and he was right, he was OK.
MT: Wait … you head butted him?
Vitti: Yeah, just a little tap. It wasn't like, bam! Just a, "Wake up for a second and listen to me!" Then he did, he let me look at it, and he was right. Maybe I should have trusted him, but I felt like this one I needed to know for myself. I have a responsibility to protect him from himself. But in that case, I taped him, he went out and played and was great.
There was a SLAM Magazine piece on Bryant from the 1997-98 season, designed mostly to breathlessly hype up the second-year player (as was the magazine's main function back then), that also gave a little insight into what was a burgeoning relationship between the Laker trainer and the soon-to-be Laker legend. How their repartee, just a year into their relationship, was both respectful and gruff.
Nearly a decade and a half later, this appears to have sustained. Good thing. Because Bryant's going to need this guy, as he drags that leg into his 16th season.
- Kobe Bryant