What’s Eating Kobe Bryant?

At some point we all have to deal with aging, and professional basketball players are no exception to this rule. They have to find their own way to adjust to the diminishing skills and abilities that they have relied on for their livelihood for many years. For some, this means mentoring the younger players and eventually conceding their starting role for the good of the team. And for others, it becomes much more difficult for them to accept their fate. A great example is Kobe Bryant this season.

In his 16th NBA season — and having played more minutes than any 33 year old in NBA history — Bryant is attempting more shots, and scoring more points than he has since his MVP-and-glaring-at-underachieving-teammates days. With nearly 50,000 minutes under his between regular season, playoff and Olympic play, Kobe isn’t letting up. He’s using as many possessions as ever—if not more. It’s not like Kobe has been a ball hog; his assists average is his highest in 7 seasons. In fact, his scoring average of 30.2 ppg leads the NBA and is his highest mark since ’07. His rebounding numbers are as high as they were in ’08.

We know Kobe has a history of being ultra-competitive, if not to the point of mania, but what could still motivate a player with 5 rings and nearly 30,000 points to keep doing this at the risk of his health and future well-being?

Let’s flashback to the summer of 2010, when LeBron James notoriously decided to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Now, do you remember when everyone suddenly stopped talking about the Lakers, even though they were just weeks removed from winning the NBA title? At the time, we joked that somewhere Kobe went straight to the gym to shoot jumpers for 6 straight hours, but we weren’t really kidding. After all, this is the same player who chose to “work on his game” last season for an hour immediately after the Lakers’ loss to the Miami Heat on the floor of American Airlines Arena. This was especially bizarre since Bryant is the type of player who wakes at 2 am to workout anyway, but he was seemingly bothered by his 8-21 shooting performance. Clearly, Kobe hasn’t accepted that there may be anyone better.

A couple of months later the Los Angeles Lakers season would end in disappointing fashion as they suffered a second round sweep to the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks after Kobe had been bombarded all season long by questions about his finger, knee and just about anything else that could possibly be ailing him. People said he needed to take a step back, get healthy and to just take it easy.

These people forgot they were talking about Kobe Bryant, who took to Europe during the lockout for experimental platelet-rich plasma therapy on his knee and ankle, while allowing his finger to heal. Don’t ask me what “platelet-rich plasma therapy” entails; I’m just a basketball blogger. But what I do know is that with all that he’s accomplished and at his age, Kobe is doing whatever it takes to stay relevant still.

Consider this season. Despite the ankle, knee and finger treatments and prolonged rest, Kobe still managed to enter the season with a nagging injury: his wrist. Of course, Kobe responded by ripping off 4 consecutive games of 40-plus points, including a season high 48 after which he remarked, “Not bad for the 7th best player in the league…”, referring to his rank in ESPN’s Player Rankings. It’s astounding to think that a player of Kobe’s caliber pays attention to such trivial things as player rankings, but that’s Kobe. In case you’ve lost count, the list of things motivating Kobe include the Heat, ESPN and some obsessive intrinsic motivation to be the best.

This isn’t to say that Kobe is a bad guy; just a hyper-competitive one. It’s been well-documented that Kobe mentored Timberwolves forward Wes Johnson before his rookie season. And when the student got the best of the teacher last season by outscoring him, Kobe graciously praised his prodigy for his effort.
However, this season is a whole other animal, as Bryant began jawing at Johnson while moving up the court this past Sunday. Personal relationships are disregarded with the Kobe System’s all-business approach on-court. Clearly, something is eating Kobe Bryant.

Is it pettiness or pride that leads Bryant to do the things he did on Sunday night? The Lakers were coming on the second night of a back-to-back in which they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 100-89 and were set to face an upstart Timberwolves team that people can’t stop talking about. Worse yet, the Lakers had to endure 24 hours of hearing about their putrid road record and that Vegas even had the Timberwolves as a 2-point favorite. In that game, Bryant himself shot 14-29 for 34 points and 14 rebounds as he connected on dagger after dagger to kill the Timberwolves’ rally.

What’s my point? For the second season in a row, the Lakers have been forgotten in the NBA contender conversation as darlings like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and super teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat were suddenly called favorites even though none of those teams had won anything. And now, people had begun talking about how the Lakers were 10th in the West and how the Timberwolves were an up-and-coming team as they neared the .500 mark. Suddenly, there was no more love for the Lakers although they were just a year and a half removed from hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

The thing about Kobe is that he really doesn’t care if it’s a contender, fringe playoff team, or perennial lottery team: If he sees a challenge, he’s going to accept it. For instance, last season against the Timberwolves, Kobe responded to the boos of the crowd by getting his own rebound off of a missed free throw, performing a flawless reverse layup and subsequently smirking and pointing at the crowd during a blowout. He had nothing to prove to that crowd, but gave them a friendly reminder of who he is anyway. Kobe doesn’t seem to care if you like him, but he wants you to know that, in the end, he’s the best.

Perhaps it comes from coming off the bench as a young player and then into Shaq’s shadow when he finally did. Maybe it’s all the talk after O’Neal’s departure that he couldn’t win a championship without him. Or ultimately, it may come from hearing the Michael Jordan comparisons over all these years. That’s just it: he doesn’t want to be Michael Jordan. He wants to be the greatest ever. That’s why he wakes up at 2 am after playing 40 minutes of NBA basketball hours before, why he performs shooting drills immediately after a loss to a rival, and that’s why he continues to subject his body to the tremendous toll that he does.

The closest thing to an acknowledgment of the aging process that we may ever get is Kobe’s adoption of a low-post game as his perimeter skills declined. Of course, he’ll never admit that, but it’s added years on to his productivity, efficiency, and career. There will come a day when Kobe can no longer maintain this level of play, but don’t tell him I said that.



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