“I’m making this very simple. Either I like playing the game and going through this process or I don’t. I try to strip it down to the simplest form. Either I like playing some more or I don’t. But I think that decision needs to be made after the season. It’s hard to make a decision like that before the season.”
Young Kobe in his prime reveled in “going through this process” and figuring out ways to adjust his game to the various ailments he garnered throughout his career that threatened his effectiveness on the court.
However, the once illustrious Bryant has alas staggered and fallen from his pulpit in the last couple of seasons. Though noted for his unwavering mental fortitude, Bryant’s previous quote suggests that he’s finally started weighing the cost of going through the long, arduous hours at rehab, the gym, the weight room, etc. — a far cry from his mentality just two seasons ago, before a major injury left Bryant sidelined for the majority of the past two seasons.
At the age of 34 in his 17th season in the NBA, Kobe played a gruesome 38.6 minutes per game (second only to Luol Deng). He’d played the equivalent of three extra seasons, including his participation in the Summer Olympics with Team USA twice, and tallied a total of 220 playoff games. That was the last time fans of the NBA saw a fully healthy Kobe.
Surprisingly, though old and worn out even then, Kobe had yet to fold or decline in his ability to perform; on the contrary, Kobe played one of his best seasons that year. Earning himself the nickname “Vino,” Kobe proved that he’d gotten better with age, even though the Lakers were a shipwreck. They reached a record of seven games below the .500 mark and were in grave danger of missing the postseason. Nearly carrying the team on his back, Kobe relentlessly willed the Lakers back into the playoff picture.
Fearlessly, Kobe had even shown fans flashbacks of his young self by posterizing various opponents with vicious dunks throughout the season. In fact, Kobe remarkably compiled 40+ points and 10+ assists in back-to-back games for the first time in his career (being the first player to accomplish this since Michael Jordan in 1989).
Indeed, at times Kobe has almost led fans to believe that he’s immortal by seeming to defy human capabilities, but he finally came back to Earth as his fate was decided in the final week of the season when he tore his Achilles. Somehow finding the strength to walk to the free throw line, sink his two free throws and walk back, Kobe waved off the help that Pau Gasol offered him and strode with a limp toward the locker room. He’d given the season his all and went until he literally couldn’t anymore, yet Kobe surprisingly still took the time after the game to talk to reporters, holding back tears. All his preparation and hard work seemed to have gone out the window and the situation was no longer in his control. Clearly human, no longer would Kobe be able to ignore his aches and pains.
It’s possible that Bryant has permanently exhausted his body, and that the torn Achilles was his body’s way of telling him that he’s done. He’s played a combined 41 games in the two seasons since rupturing his Achilles, and his efficiency from the field has greatly plummeted. Of course, Bryant wants to retire from the game on his own terms rather than admitting defeat to the injury; however there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when putting his body under duress will no longer be worth it.
On why he still puts his body through the drudgery of the NBA season:
“I’m crazy. Ha, ha, ha. I love playing. I enjoy it. It’s weird. You go from as a kid loving the game, thinking you will be able to play forever to being where I am now and understanding there is some finality to it.
“It’s amazing to take a step back and look at that art. You’re kind of the opposite of starting out as a kid. You’re sitting here at 36 and soon to be 37 years old, it’s amazing.”
Here Bryant expresses his passion for the game, which is what drives him to keep on going despite the physical and mental distress that comes with a 37-year-old rehabbing for multiple injuries. Bryant has always found the respect of his peers through his work ethic, dedication and commitment to the game of basketball. No one questions his heart or desire to thrive as the best basketball player that he can possibly be, and his resolve to push himself at his age and in his body’s current state can attest to that. Coincidentally, Bryant denied that money plays a role in his motivation to continue playing.
“Zero. Zero. I’ve never played for the money. It’s never moved me. Money can come and go. I have a perspective about finances. The family is fine. What is more money going to bring other than more money? I have my family, I have my health and we’re comfortable financially and that is a massive blessing.
“I don’t want to undervalue the importance of generating any type of whatever. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m underappreciative of that or not thankful for that. But at the same, what is really important? What is the important thing? I never played for money. When I laced my sneakers up when I was a kid in Italy I wasn’t thinking about money. I had no idea how much Magic [Johnson] or [Larry] Bird got paid. I played it because I loved it.”
Many fans might scoff at this quote. Not only were Bryant’s motives impugned, but he also received tons of flak after accepting the Lakers’ lucrative offer of $48.5 million for two years and seemingly ruining the Lakers’ chances at competing for a title — which is outright silly. Bryant never bargained with the Lakers for the offer he got, he simply accepted the deal the Lakers presented to him. It’s naive to think that Bryant protesting the Lakers’ offer so that they could give it to Joe Schmo instead would’ve been a meritorious act. Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki saw the Mavericks vastly overpay Chandler Parsons with what could’ve been his money. Now the Mavericks are widely considered to be a lottery team next season, despite Nowitzki’s altruistic effort to help the team by taking a pay cut.
Many point to Tim Duncan‘s willingness to take huge pay cuts for the betterment of his team as the blueprint that Kobe should follow, but there are considerable differences with Duncan’s situation and Kobe’s. Duncan is on a championship-caliber team that’s coached by one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, none of which Bryant’s Lakers had when he signed the deal. The Lakers’ roster consists of either young, unproven commodities or players who are merely mediocre. Had Bryant taken a pay cut, he’d likely find himself in poor Nowitzki’s situation. Being committed to the game and being a savvy business man aren’t mutually exclusive.
Harking back to the Lakers’ young and unproven core, Bryant seems excited to play with the youthful roster. Nonetheless, it remains unclear if he’d be willing to go through the grind of an NBA season with a rebuilding Lakers team beyond this season.
On the Lakers’ current state:
“They have really set themselves up for a promising future going on years. I think they drafted very well. The free agents that we picked are extremely solid, [Roy] Hibbert, [Brandon] Bass, Lou [Williams]. We have a very good mix of young and veteran leadership. The challenge is going to be blending the two and cutting down the learning curve.
“How quickly can we get going? How quickly can we bring up [rookie D’Angelo] Russell, [Julius] Randle. [Jordan] Clarkson got valuable experience last year in playing that will benefit us tremendously. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to running with these young guns.”
Bryant’s quote above accurately reflects his optimistic mindset. He’s never been one to succumb to a challenge. Instead, Bryant is adamant when it pertains to solving problems and adjusting to difficult circumstances — similar to the way he handles injuries — and this year is no different.
On his documentary, “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” and the series of Kobe-branded products that will be accessed by more than 350 million people in China:
“I want to create compelling stories that inspire people. It’s pretty straightforward. The first action is inspiration and then from the inspiration you create services and products that enable people to reach what they are passionate about. It’s about passion. But the root of what it’s about is an idea, a journey. That’s what we are about at Kobe, Inc.”
In this respect, Bryant has greatly overachieved as his career has been nothing short of inspirational. His plethora of impressive feats such as scoring 81 points, placing third on the all-time scoring list, winning five championships and many others will be forever set in stone. After everything he’s accomplished in the past 19 years, he no longer has anything to prove.
Even still, Kobe has somehow summoned the determination to overcome the biggest obstacle of his life: conquering his ruptured Achilles. Prevailing will only intensify his legacy. His longevity is a testament to his compelling work ethic, which continues to inspire fans worldwide daily. Beyond all of the controversy and ill-advised shots, there may never be another player who possesses the same type of unwavering fortitude and willpower encompassing the man known as Kobe Bryant. Should he decide to retire after this season or even in the next couple years, Kobe’s legacy will still live on in the hearts of basketball fans worldwide.