Archives For Kobe

One of my favorite parts of the old Lakers’ telecasts on KCAL Channel 9 was Chick Hearn interviewing players from the Lakers and the opposing team. The interviews would often air during the pre-game or halftime show and would always give some insight or an anecdote that you likely weren’t going to get from anywhere else. Credit Chick who, along with his brilliance as the game’s best play by play man, was also as personable and pleasant as could be when chatting with the players.

This video, however, is one that I’d never seen. After starting his first career game the night before — a game in which he’d scored 12 points on 5-11 shooting — Chick sat down with rookie Kobe Bryant for a chat:

Some good stuff in this clip, but the thing that stands out is Kobe’s youth and, even at only 18 years old, the charisma and charm that, along with his prodigious talent, made him one of the league’s most popular players very early in his career. This clip also brings out a fair amount of nostalgia. This was before Phil Jackson, before the heartbreaking playoff losses, before the championships, and before the feuds that saw it all end. This was just the beginning.

With Kobe’s career nearing its end, it really is something to see him so young, so long ago, as a bright eyed rookie. In a way it makes me sad. It also makes me feel extremely grateful that nearly 18 years later he is still wearing the purple and gold. Oh, an by the way, that night against the Spurs on the 2nd night of a back to back, Kobe started his second straight game and scored 19 points on 6-12 shooting to help the Lakers win their 5th straight game.

(H/T to Andy Kamenetzky and Jon Weisman for the clip)

More than any of the other candidates who could have gotten the Lakers’ head coaching job, Byron Scott will get an extended honeymoon period. While I have expressed my thoughts on more than one occasion about how much Scott’s history as a Laker should matter, the fact is that it does. It mattered to the front office when they made their choice to hire him and it matters to fans now.

More than what matters to fans or Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak, though, what matters to the players is most important. They’re the ones who will follow Scott into the battle or tune him out. They are the ones who must buy in to what he’s selling in terms of philosophy and then go out on the court and execute his schemes. And of all the players, the one who matters most here is Kobe Bryant. He’s the leader of this team on the floor and if he’s on board the other’s will follow him.

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If you are an NBA fan, you are familiar with Allen Iverson’s famous rant on practice. In response to a report that Iverson had missed a session (and his coach’s criticism that came with it), he vented to the press and delivered the now famous quotes. While that clip will never cease to make me smile, we must not forget that for all intents and purposes, Iverson was wrong in the big picture. His coach at the time, Larry Brown, came from the Dean Smith tree of coaching that emphasized “playing the right way” and establishing good habits in, yes, practice. Iverson, acknowledged those things, but still turned the moment into a half joke-half serious retort to the idea in principle, going so far as to rhetorically ask how he can make his teammates better by practicing.

I take this trip down memory lane not to beat up The Answer or to try and tarnish the rep of a guy who I used to love to watch compete. No, I bring it up because I was thinking about A.I.’s one time rival, Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant and one of the ways he can most help this year’s Lakers.

In a recent sit down with Dave McMenamin, Nick Young waxed on many topics, including growing up in Los Angeles, his “legend” status as a competitor in the famous Drew League, and returning to the Lakers to try and build on his strong individual campaign last year. He also talked about Kobe and offered these very nice words on his teammate:

“He’s been great, really. He’s been like my mentor, really, right now. He’s been calling, texting me, talking to me, motivating me. I think that’s big. Growing up, who would have thought Kobe would be the one doing all that? I didn’t ever think I’d be working out with Kobe or talking to him.”

Kobe “the mentor” is an idea that comes up periodically from both current and former teammates. Often times it’s framed in the exact manner that Young did, almost in a “who’d have thunk it?” way or as a means of contrasting what is the more general view of Kobe as a teammate. More often than not, we think of Kobe as a guy who will get in teammates faces and tell them the things they don’t want to hear, rather than the nurturing type who builds guys up. He has gone on record as someone who leads through confrontation, after all, so it’s not a surprise that conventional thinking exists.

No leader is any one way all the time, however, so this isn’t a matter of style or tactics or, even, effectiveness (which I’d argue Kobe very much is). It’s a matter of presence. Last year, Kobe was not around. While he was with the team during his comeback from his achilles injury, his presence faded after fracturing a bone in his knee that kept him out after his brief six game return. The longer his absence from the court went, the less and less Kobe was around the guys, either on the bench at the games or at the practices to serve as an example and voice of leadership.

In a way, his absence from the practice court reminded me of the 2011 season. That year, the Lakers were coming off back to back championships and three straight runs to the Finals. Kobe had suffered through knee issues most of the year before and had to have his knee drained on more than one occasion during the playoffs that saw the Lakers dispatch the Celtics in seven games to claim the championship. In 2011, then, Peter Vescey, at that time of the New York Post, broke the news that Kobe Bryant had not been practicing due to recurring issues with his knee. In typical Kobe fashion, he was defiant about his injury, but still acknowledged that his lack of practicing had an impact.

Following the disappointing end to that season, Kobe spoke about this during his exit interview, which Brian Kamenetzky (then with ESPN) captured and discussed:

That Kobe was unable to practice with any consistency is no secret. Asked about how it impacted the team, Bryant said he was disappointed in how the team reacted, believing the players didn’t quite have the same intensity as they otherwise might have, since “big brother” wasn’t on the floor to keep them in line. They could take “days off.” There’s probably some truth to that, but the larger issue is how hard it is for a team to gain continuity on both sides of the ball when the main cog is rarely on the floor to practice. Particularly offensively, where the Lakers struggled to create good looks deeper into games. It wasn’t something that could be avoided — Kobe wasn’t sitting on the sidelines to protect a pedicure, but a bum knee — but was a factor for sure.

This upcoming season, Kobe faces multiple individual challenges. He is coming off major injuries and is staring at his basketball mortality while battling father time. Embedded in the fabric of these challenges, however, is the fact that he must still lead his team. And, in order to do so, he must be a part of the group and, yes, be in practices as the driving force behind creating the culture that Byron Scott is so fond of discussing.

There are complications, however. Even if disregarding the recent injury history, there is the fact that Kobe is…old. He recently called himself “70 in basketball years” and, while it’s a hyperbolic line that inspired a few chuckles, it’s also rooted in truth. After over 50K minutes combined regular season and playoff minutes, Kobe will need the proper rest to play at a high level. This rest needs to be given not only in games, but in practices as well.

Further, Byron Scott is not known for his lax practices. In fact, it’s the opposite. In a recent sit down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, the question about how Scott liked to practice was barely completed before “Hard” was coming out the head coach’s mouth. He followed that up with a comment about needing to find a balance, understanding his players, and how he’d handle back to backs, but the implication was clear. Scott will work his players hard in practice in the hopes of drilling them on how things need to be done in game situations. As a Pat Riley disciple, we should not expect less.

For Kobe, then, how this plays out will be something to watch this year. If the team is going to achieve at the levels they hope to internally, Kobe will need to be front and center and providing an example, not just in the games, but in the practices. History has proven as much.

At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.

Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be. This idea is detailed wonderfully in this excellent longform piece by Chris Ballard that ran in this week’s Sports Illustrated. It is hard to argue with the results.

The piece linked above is well worth your time for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is a snapshot in time at where Kobe is now, staring at his mortality as his career winds down. There are no more magic fixes from diet adjustments or extra workouts to put in that can reverse the impact of father time. And while the work will be done as diligently and with as much focus as it always has been, the fact remains that there is only so much work that can be done when you have already done as much as this man has.

I am thinking about this more today than others because, as the title of this post states, today is Kobe’s birthday. He is now 36 years old, entering into his 19th NBA season after being drafted as a 17 year old. You can do the math and see that Kobe has been an NBA’er more than half his life now, all those years soldiering for the team I root for.

Today, then, is as much a celebration for Kobe as it is for fans. He has given so much to the game he loves and, in turn, to us, the fans. Even if you hate him as a player, you will miss him when he’s gone. That, really, may be the quintessential statement about Kobe. He didn’t always do it the way you wanted him to, but by doing it his way he always gave us something worth discussing; worth marveling over. He may not have earned your cheers, but he certainly earned your respect.

With that, I’ll close with one of my favorite highlight clips of Kobe. It is titled “The Clinic” and has over 5 million views on youtube and targets plays from the 2007-2009 seasons. I love this video for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it captures the many aspects of Kobe’s game that reflect the work he’s put in. Sure, you see the athleticism, but you also see the footwork, the smarts, and the unrelenting attack style that his career has been built on. The video shows his genius as an all court player. Mostly, it shows the Kobe that I’ll mostly remember — devastating, driven, and the guy I loved to watch every night. Happy Birthday, Kobe.

If you ask most basketball fans the question above, the answer will probably be skeptical at best and sarcastic laughter at worst. Kobe may have made a career out of turning doubters (either real or perceived) into believers, but this time it is different. A torn achilles and a broken bone in the knee while attempting to come back from said achilles injury will do that.

One report, though, is making it seem like those doubts may be miscast. From Lyle Spencer of Sports on Earth:

On the heels of an invisible 2013-14 campaign that clearly unhinged the Lakers, Kobe Bryant is back to being Kobe Bryant, from Kupchak’s observation point. And that is the best news in months for the faithful, whose trust in the purple and gold is being severely tested.

“My window overlooks the court, and he comes in to work out from time to time,” Kupchak said. “You would not know he’s in his mid-30s. You wouldn’t know he hurt his knee and had a torn Achilles. There’s no limp. He’s got a hop in his step. He’s working hard.”

And more from Kupchak:

“I’m not worried,” Kupchak said. “Kobe looks great. He’s had two rough years. The Achilles was a freak thing, and the knee — I’m not sure anybody can predict that kind of thing.

“He’s actually been healthy since May. He’s ready, motivated. And he’s engaged.”

First off, let me get the obligatory “what is he supposed to say?” comment out of the way.

Kupchak is the General Manager and, while he’s often more blunt and honest than others around the league who hold his title, it’s not in his best interest to say anything besides what he did. Not to mention the cynic in me remembers when Dwight Howard was coming back from back surgery and all you heard from Lakers’ practices was that Dwight was looking very good and surprising people with his progress. Then, when the season started, he was clearly still hampered and not performing anywhere near the level he’d shown in previous seasons.

The flip-side, of course, is that Mitch is just being his normal, straight shooting self. I have seen enough press conferences and interviews with the man to know that he can speak in riddles with the best of them, giving non-answer-answers while ducking and dodging questions like an agent in the Matrix. So, while acknowledging above that there’s no reason for Mitch to say something negative about Kobe’s progress, there’s also no need for him to be so positive either. If he wanted to, he could have just provided some bland, understated response and gone about his business.

That’s not what happened, however. And while I do not want to spend too much time dissecting and parsing his words, I do find it interesting that he spoke in the terms he did when he could have provided a much more vague update and gotten away with it easily.

Of course, what is said in a random interview given by the GM in August will matter much less than what happens on the court, from the player, come late October — or, better yet, in the middle of a 4 games in 6 nights stretch come February. Kobe, for whatever flaws fans and analysts want to point out, has made a career out of giving great effort most every night and turning those stretches of the season where other players start to coast into his personal proving ground of greatness.

How he manages those stretches this season and whether he is up to the challenge of being “Kobe” night-in and night-out, is what it will all come down to. And, when viewed through that prism, that skepticism mentioned at the top of this post will live on. With it being very real this time. It sure would be nice, though, if Kobe had one more “prove them wrong” run in him. Time will tell.