LOS ANGELES – Everyone else on the Los Angeles Lakers had left and gone home Sunday night, and finally Kobe Bryant was on his way, too. He had slid into a side room to visit with a child from the Make a Wish Foundation, and now walked down the long corridor toward the Staples Center loading dock. A text message popped into his phone. It was coach Mike Brown, and he wanted to run something past his star player.
Bryant stopped and asked a locker room attendant: “Hey, is Mike still here?”
Told yes, Bryant turned around and marched back through the double steel doors and disappeared into Brown’s office for a 20-minute consult. For Bryant, it’s a different dynamic with a coach, a partnership born on his own clock. Until this year, he had never had a coach awake at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., to trade thoughts.
“He’s like me,” Bryant said later. “He doesn’t sleep. We talk all the time, and about everything: What we need to do, how we need to adjust. Constant communication.”
Bryant loves that Brown’s pushing people within the organization, that he’s pushing Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and, yes, that he’s pushing Bryant, too. The Lakers are still struggling to find themselves, but Brown is transforming them on the fly, fortifying them defensively and moving far away from the triangle offense. For everything that’s changed, Bryant still believes the core of a championship contender is here.
“We have our own Big Three,” Bryant said. “Andrew. Pau. And myself. Those are three bona fide All-Stars.
And you’d put that against anyone else’s three?
“Yes, I would.”
His right arm wrapped in a protective device reaching up his wrist, Bryant had left behind a 90-82 victory over Memphis at Staples, left flashes of the formula for the Lakers' success. Bryant had 26 points and nine assists, shooting 50 percent, balancing the floor and feeding teammates for easy baskets. His most important play had been late in the fourth quarter, when he had been fouled and his momentum pushed him into the seats behind the basket. The rest of us would reach out, use our hands to absorb the fall, but Bryant consciously flexed back his wrist and let his forearm collide with the back of a chair.
With those torn ligaments in his right wrist – an injury that should’ve required surgery and three months of rehabilitation – Bryant is forever one collision from serious seasonal consequences. When he fails to keep the wrist moving during a game, it will swell significantly. That’s why he’s always making that shooting motion with his wrist on the sidelines in down moments. His personal trainer, Tim Grover, says simply: “I’ve never seen anyone do what Kobe’s doing right now.”
It’s near impossible to play with torn ligaments in your shooting wrist, never mind play well. Bryant is the ultimate creature of routine, and it never changes. From Grover to the video technological whiz he calls his “Jack Bauer,” Mike Procopio in Chicago, Bryant's circle is small, his preparation unchanged and perhaps unrivaled. He has shown he can make easy and tough shots, with the wrist. His baseline fades, his jumpers, still come with his classic form, the proper arc and angles, and they drop. There are good shots and bad shots, and history tells you Bryant’s self-examination distills the difference over the long run.
“I shoot, I shoot,” Bryant said. “You’ve known that for 16 years. I’m not changing my game. If the defense is not doubling, I’m going to score. If I’ve got a good look, I’m going to score. My teammates know that. But I also give them the ball, too, and set them up.
“But at the end of the day, I’m a scorer first.”
There’s forever going to be defiance in his words, because without it there’s no greatness, there’s no ability to play through this wrist injury. The Lakers won three of four games in the last week, and Bryant averaged 33 points. He’s playing lots of minutes – 38 per game for the week – and he still punctuated his Western Conference Player of the Week award with an up-and-under baseline dunk Sunday night.
This promises to be a grueling sprint of a season where no one wants to hear about tired legs and injured players. Bryant’s always made it harder for Lakers teammates to sit out with injuries, because they know he’s plays through everything. For Gasol and Bynum, this has never been more important. “Mike’s pushed us hard, especially our bigs,” Bryant said of Brown. “He demands a lot from Pau. … But you’re seeing, Andrew has an incredible drive, an ambition to be great. And we need to encourage him in that.”
The Lakers need Bynum and Gasol to play the best ball of their lives this season to be a champion again, because Los Angeles’ flaws beyond its three stars have been so deep. The Lakers are missing quickness, athleticism, but they do have incredible size and skill and, yes, Kobe Bryant, who wants the chance to get deep into the season and do what he’s always done best: Close on a title.
There’s always a chance these Lakers make that trade for Dwight Howard, but Bryant’s never pleaded a case with management for it. He wishes Chauncey Billups had come free from the amnesty waiver, because Bryant would’ve recruited him hard to bypass the Miami Heat and sign with the Lakers. He never had the chance. The Lakers need better guards, better perimeter defenders, more speed. They still haven’t tested themselves against the NBA’s elite, but it’s coming, and judgment can be swift and merciless.
At the end of a week that he had stabilized his aching wrist and wayward team, Kobe Bryant had stopped a moment to admire a most different kind of athlete, with a most recognizable composition. He'd watched the end of the Denver Broncos' victory over Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC playoffs, and marveled at Tim Tebow. “He gets it done,” Bryant said. “He wins. That’s will, that’s a skill. That takes you a long way.”
This promises to be the longest of short seasons for Bryant and the Lakers: too little rest and too much pain. All the talking, all the opinions, and outside on the loading dock of the Staples Center, Bryant was still wired, still wide awake. He has five NBA titles and, in his mind, the formula remains unchanged for a sixth.
“I’m going to do what I do,” Kobe Bryant said. “I’m not changing.”
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