Does the end begin here for Kobe Bryant?


Dec 25

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It’s never a scientific process to identify the point where a great athlete’s career changes, sort of the beginning of the end.

Sometimes it’s an injury, or just the natural aging process. It can be both. Maybe it will be for Kobe Bryant, who is playing in his 19th season after returning from major injuries and having played just six games last season. Bryant, though shooting poorly, is third in the league in scoring and still a fan favorite, coming up second in the Western Conference in the first All-Star voting announced Thursday.

But Thursday also may be the day many point to when it really changed for Bryant.

Always the great, relentless competitor, Bryant chose to sit out the featured Christmas Day game against the Bulls to rest. He said he was sore.

Yes, Kobe Bryant.

“Extremely difficult (not to play), especially playing here, playing on Christmas Day and playing in this city,” Bryant conceded in an upbeat meeting with reporters before the game. “I love playing here. The fans have always been great; there’s always a lot of energy in the building. At the same time, I’ve just got to be smart. It’s really going against my nature, but I’ve got to be smart about it.”

It was a surprise to most, including media who travel with the Lakers. Bryant had been pushing this season, averaging 35.5 minutes per game and 24.6 points, though shooting 37.2 percent and 27.4 percent on threes. But even Michael Jordan didn’t shoot well when he returned from his hiatus in 1995, though not after having played as many years as Bryant has and from as severe an injury, the Achilles tear before a knee problem.

But Bryant has always been one of the most committed and determined workers ever seen in the NBA. He may be more severely hurt than he is letting on, though Lakers coach Byron Scott said he didn’t expect Bryant to be out long.

The shock was to skip the featured Christmas Day game so promoted by the TV networks and the league and Bryant’s only visit to Chicago, where he hasn’t played now the last two years.

Scott was asked if he ever remembered Magic Johnson, the great showman and league ambassador, sitting out a Christmas game. Scott said no. Scott admitted he never did, either, though he said he was much younger and healthier.

After all, it’s not like the NBA scheduled the Lakers for Christmas Day because of the team.

It was about Kobe.

So could this day actually be the beginning of the end for one of the greatest ever?

“Old age,” said Bryant, who was convivial and accommodating with media. ”My knees are sore at this stage of the season, my Achilles are sore, both of them; my metatarsals are tight, back’s tight and just need to kind of hit the reset button. You push and push and push, body gets really sore; got to reset yourself a little bit, takes a couple of days, lot of ice baths, stretching massage all that stuff.

“When I have a couple of days (off) what happens (is) the body realizes how messed up it is,” said Bryant, who sat out Tuesday’s home game against the Warriors with the presumption he’d play Christmas Day. “Everything else starts hurting; it’s an opportunity to treat everything. I’ll get back to being healthy like I was at the start of the season; we’ll cut down the minutes.

“I feel an obligation to play if I’m at the YMCA,” Bryant said about playing on the holiday. “I think it’s important from a fan perspective; you want to see these players play.”

But Bryant said it was not for him this time.

Bryant was expansive on other issues:

On talking with Michael Jordan after Bryant passed Jordan on the all time scoring list: “We talked. If you have one guess what he said it was ‘Go get Karl (Malone).’ The competitor never stops, always thinking the next challenge. It’s was more of a thankful feeling to Michael and the players who came before. I learned so much from them. I don’t say that lightly. I literally stole (crap) from them. Spin moves and pull ups and things like that. It’s not me passing these players. It’s us because I’ve literally taken things from their games and made them my own. That’s the way the game should be, you learn from those who have come before and carry them forward.”

On former teammate Pau Gasol: “Pau’s been playing like Pau. It’s phenomenal; he’s been in the league for a while, too. He seems to have no drop in his play. Looks healthy and strong and moving well. I told him I’d support him no matter what he tried to do (when leaving Los Angeles). We spent several hours reminiscing (Wednesday night); it was good seeing him, just talking. We started this rebuilding process together. When he came here that’s when thing turned around. He’s a part of this franchise. It’s tough for him to go and leave what he helped build and it was tough for me to see him go.”

On if the Lakers hadn’t traded for Gasol: “I would have tried to win a couple with Kwame Brown.”

On Jimmy Butler: “When he first came in the league and we played in Chicago, I went out early to shoot and he was out there working out. At the time he wasn’t a consistent shooter, but he was working hard early before anyone else got here. Looking at his game and the way he’s playing now, it’s clear he’s been doing that consistently because he’s been playing very well. It’s not an accident, a hot streak. These are shots he’s consistently making; he’s expanded his game.”

On Derrick Rose: “I’m just happy to see him out there playing and being aggressive. It’s hard when you have an injury like that in such a freak situation where driving to the basket can scare you a little bit, scared of making the same moves. But he looks like he’s put that in the back of his mind, coming out and playing aggressive.”

On moving forward as a player: “I’m trying with our (health team) to find new ways of doing it because there’s really no blueprint for playing this long; at this position, at least, in the NBA. Really trying to figure new things out and see what’s out there and what works and doesn’t work. So constantly experimenting. I didn’t think I’d be shooting like (crap). When I was doing the workouts my body felt pretty good; it was a matter of how it will feel over time. Now the challenge for me is getting my sea legs and figuring out what spots on the floor I should operate from more consistently. It’s habit for me to move around and operate and be active offensively from all different spots on the floor. I don’t think my body can hold up to that anymore. You’re used to playing a certain way so long. Now it’s time to fine tune that and work around the limitations that I have.”

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