By: Ken Berger
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Stretching on the floor of the Lakers‘ practice floor, Kobe Bryant was as vulnerable as you will see him on a basketball court. He was flat on his back, getting the kinks worked out by a member of the Lakers’ training staff — the old bones moving this way and that, the odometer reading 51,000 minutes (regular-season and playoffs) and counting.
But for how long? How long until this vintage model must be traded in for something younger and newer — something that will endure in a league that is so much different than the one a cocky, Afro-domed Bryant joined way back in 1996?
At 34, after the first two days of training camp as he embarks upon his 17th NBA season, Bryant was in a reflective mood last week. He’d already spoken of how this might be the most talent that’s ever surrounded him in a Lakers uniform, and how his improbable union with Dwight Howard is about both today and tomorrow — about the chase for his sixth championship and the inevitable passing of the baton to Howard. Bryant made clear last week as the media descended in full force upon Lakerland that this is still his team, but again he used the words “after I’m gone” to describe the franchise’s future under Howard’s leadership.
When will he be gone? When will the most masterful, historically important basketball career this side of Michael Jordan’s be chiseled in stone, the way some might joke that his first NBA contract was?
Speaking with CBSSports.com in a quiet moment after practice, Bryant conceded that, in all likelihood, the finish line and the conclusion of his current contract will be one in the same. Bryant has two years left, and though he was careful to point out, “One can never be too sure,” he made it clear in the next breath it’s almost unfathomable he would play beyond 2013-14, which would be his 18th season.
“It’s just that three more years seems like a really long time to continue to stay at a high, high level of training and preparation and health,” Bryant said. “That’s a lot of years. For a guard? That’s a lot of years.”
Even after visiting the fountain of youth in the form of a knee procedure in Germany that allowed him to average nearly 39 minutes per game last season, Bryant senses that the end is near — and not only for his knees, wrist, ankles or other body parts, but also for his incomparably competitive mind. The window, he is ready to acknowledge, is two years. Two more chances to catch Jordan.
“It’s not about health necessarily,” he said. “It’s about ‘Do I want to do it? Do I have that hunger to continue to prepare at a high level?’ ”
Bill Parcells, a competitive sociopath from another sport, used to say that if you’re talking about retirement, it means you’ve basically already retired. To hear Bryant, the most cutthroat basketball combatant of his generation, speak about the day — the moment — when his smoldering desire to win finally will be extinguished, was something to behold.
So much so that the next question — about whether Bryant would ever change his mind and hang on for an extra year or two as a role player averaging 15 points just to pad his championship resume — needn’t have been asked.
“That’s not gonna happen,” Bryant said. “That’s just not me.”
Had the Lakers’ offseason continued deep into summertime in the uneventful manner in which it began, this would’ve been an entirely different, much more wistful conversation. The Lakers had maxed out their existing roster with a second straight exit in the conference semifinals, and Bryant knew it. The Chris Paul elixir had been snatched from Bryant’s eager fingertips before he got a chance to drink of it, and the Lakers were coming from way back in the field in the yearlong Howard chase — never really appearing to be in the race until the end.
Given his intense desire to finish his career with one more championship to equal the six titles achieved by Jordan, and considering the Lakers’ inability to rise to the challenge presented by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West, it should’ve been enough to push Bryant into conceding his chase was over. It should’ve shaken his belief that the Lakers could reinvent themselves one more time, could deal Bryant a championship hand once more before it was over.
“Nope,” Bryant said.
Even before general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled Steve Nash and then Howard out of thin air, Bryant had never lost belief the Lakers would be back for one more run — one more climb up the championship mountain, the Mount Rushmore of the sport.
“Right after the series against Oklahoma, I just had a lot of belief in our organization,” Bryant said. “I knew how much the Buss family, Jeanie and so forth, wanted to turn it around. I had a lot of faith in the organization. I’ve seen them do it. They rebuilt first by picking up Shaq … then that era was over and they rebuilt again. And now they’ve rebuilt again. I’ve seen them do it before.”
Though Bryant perhaps will benefit most directly from Nash’s willingness and ability to handle the ball and shoulder playmaking responsibilities, the latest reinvention of the Lakers will hinge on Bryant’s relationship with Howard. The improbable union of Bryant with another bigger-than-life center whose opinion of himself matches (and perhaps exceeds) his accomplishments is proof that history can and does repeat itself. But in the honeymoon period of their basketball marriage, Bryant and Howard have displayed none of the signs of the alpha-dog feud that doomed the Kobe-Shaq experience during the Lakers’ millennial dynasty.
After Bryant proclaimed the obvious at media day — this was still his team — Howard lodged no protest. After Shaq — a nemesis that Howard and Bryant share — lobbed his latest made-for-entertainment cocktail into Lakers camp by omitting Howard from his list of top NBA centers, Howard fired back with this: “Shaq played the game. He’s done. He’s gone. It’s time to move on.”
What better way to curry favor with Bryant than to belittle Shaq? So far, they’re both making all the right moves and saying all the right things. In fact, even before the Shaq-Dwight exchange last week, Bryant offered a vigorous defense of Howard in his conversation with CBSSports.com, calling out Howard’s critics as “silly.”
“I don’t think he needs to understand anything [about being a Laker],” Bryant said. “I think he just needs to come in and do what he normally does. There’s some things that I’ll teach him just in terms of the approach to the game and how to manipulate defenses and things like that. But I think he just comes here and has a good time. He has a great personality, which is perfect for this city.”
As for Howard’s clowning persona clashing with the elegance and responsibility of being a Laker, Bryant said, “I’ve heard that, but I think that people confuse that with his effectiveness. He’s had an incredible career. Lack of focus is what, because he hasn’t won a championship? He went against teams that were just better. He’s won, what, three defensive player of the year awards? That’s kind of tough to say a person lacks focus when he has three defensive player of the year awards. That sounds a little silly.”
Now that he can see the finish line, Bryant’s focus has expanded beyond the court. With a debilitating lockout looming last spring, Bryant openly took shots at the owners, saying at one point they “need to look in the mirror.” Then, during the key financial negotiating moment of the work stoppage — a year ago last week, on Oct. 4, 2011, at the Westin Times Square — Bryant was part of a small group discussion that proved to be the economic tipping point of the labor talks. Along with union president Derek Fisher (a close friend and teammate) and the Celtics’ Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (his rivals and foes), Bryant was involved in the moment that shaved more than a billion dollars off the financial difference between the two sides. Bryant’s insistence on walking away from a 50-50 deal on BRI that day was later portrayed as a potential deal-killer, but it actually laid the groundwork for the settlement that ultimately was reached six weeks later.
The absence of union executive director Billy Hunter from that sidebar negotiation was far more significant than we knew at the time. A deep rift and distrust existed between Hunter and Fisher, who has since inspired a review and federal investigation of the union’s business dealings that have left Hunter clinging for survival. And while it’s hardly surprising that Bryant would support Fisher, a friend with whom he has won five championships, union member No. 24’s refusal to so much as throw Hunter a benefit-of-the-doubt lifeline was awfully telling.
“I support Fisher 100 percent,” Bryant told CBSSports.com. “I mean, he’s the head of our [union] and you have to trust — and I know just from knowing him — that he does everything in his power to help the players out, 110 percent, even to his own detriment. So I think it’s important for us as players to always stick together in that situation.”
Then, a line from Bryant that reads like a death knell for Hunter’s tenure.
“You can always hire new people to come in and manage the situation,” Bryant said. “But as players, if we don’t stick together and rely on our unity, then we have nothing.”
Asked if he was simply supporting Fisher because they’re friends and not necessarily doubting Hunter — who has made a lot of NBA players, including Bryant, very wealthy — Bryant hinted that there was more to his opinion than loyalty.
“It’s easy for me because I’ve been really close to the situation with Derek,” Bryant said. “I’ve had in-depth conversations with him about what he’s trying to do with our players. I’ve had those conversations with him. I personally side with D-Fish.”
Spoken like a man with years and weight behind his words, a champion who can see the end and is comfortable with whatever comes next.