Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kobe Bryant Burnishing His Legend In Jordanesque Fashion

13 seasons. Numerous lengthy playoff runs. The basketball mileage of a man several years older than his actual age. Played in all 82 regular season games last year, played in all 82 regular season games this year. Played in 21 playoff games last year, has played in 14 playoff games and counting this year. In between, he took on the toughest defensive assignments as he helped our country bring back gold. The Rockets employed a defensive genius and a swarming help defense that closed off driving lanes to try and contain him last series, which went seven games. In the current series, the Nuggets beat him up for 40 minutes a night with multiple defenders and a strong help defense that meets him at every turn. And for the first time you can see the weariness from all of that wear and tear is finally starting to take its toll on him.

He's exhausted.

And now that he's become more human, he has begun the process of becoming forever inhuman.

This is the real stuff legends are made of.

This past NFL season, I wrote an article about how Peyton Manning was turning himself into a mythical athlete right before our very eyes, by playing himself into form coming off the first major physical ailment of his career (two knee surgeries in the summer) while carrying the Colts into the playoffs for the umpteenth straight season and winning a record-tying third MVP for his efforts, all at the relatively old age of 32.

Bryant is now doing something similar.

Bill Simmons suggested this week that Bryant is now a tad past his prime, and J.A. Adande joined him on his podcast to illuminate that he heard Kobe admit to being tired for the first time ever - and J.A. has only been following the dude his entire career, through all of those playoff marathons.

The statistics show that Bryant has already played in only 95 fewer games (regular season and playoffs combined) than Michael Jordan did in his entire career with the Bulls (1114 to M.J.'s 1209), even though Bryant is only 30 and Jordan retired from Chicago for the last time at 35.

Speaking of Jordan, considering that Simmons is the guy that put Jordan's final stand in red and black into its most proper perspective ("Jordan's collective performance against Indiana and Utah in the playoffs -- when he fought the effects of a 100-game season, paced his 36-year-old body, shouldered some of Scottie Pippen's burden (when Pippen was derailed by a bad back) and still managed to carry the Bulls through the final two rounds -- was simply the most extraordinary basketball achievement of my lifetime. Just thinking about it gives me the chills."), I'm surprised that he has yet to mention the parallels between that accomplishment and what Kobe is doing right now (although he's probably just ignoring it).

Think about it. It's not exactly the same scenario, but the essence of it is the same, mainly the fact that, like Jordan, Bryant is older and showing more fatigue than ever, which makes the holding off of intruders all the more admirable and warrior-like.

Kobe's been The Man for years, but now he is being chased by hungry youngsters who want what he's got. Some are beginning to call Carmelo Anthony the game's best pure scorer, and more are designating LeBron James as the league's new best player - two unofficial titles Bryant has held a grip on for most of this decade. The Nuggets are arguably just as talented as the Lakers (especially now that Anthony is turning into a superstar, a poor Game 3 showing notwithstanding), and Kobe's own team has struggled to find their footing. The funny thing is that for all the talk about how deep and gifted this Lakers team is, his supporting cast behave so often like stooges that in many ways the on-court burden he carries is just as heavy as it's ever been.

So what has he done? A huge 40 point outing to lead La La to a tough win in Game 1 of the Nuggets series. 32 in a valiant effort in a Game 2 loss. And then, Saturday night, on the road, in a hostile environment, he puts up a 41-6-5, 12-24 from the field, 15-17 from the floor.

That's 113 points over three consecutive playoff games, in the conference finals, at a time when the adversity has never been greater and the doubts have never been more prevalent (and don't forget that the Jazz were favored over Chicago in 1998 because they had home-court advantage).

People are questioning his energy and he is being challenged mightily. His bounce is not what it used to be, his burst is not as explosive (he has to play more physical on drives now as he can't always accelerate by people like he used to), and during his right-after-the-game interview with ABC's sideline reporter, he couldn't even stand up straight, instead conducting the short Q+A while bent over, tugging on his shorts, barley even able to catch his breath, and no, Kobe has never given a right-after-the-game interview that spent.

Which makes what he is doing, the way he is rising to the challenge, all the more exhilarating to behold. Kobe Bryant is playing the most impressive and inspiring ball of his career, like it or not it has been quite Jordanesque, and he is turning himself into a truly immortal basketball player right as we speak. He shall be pictured in black and white, looking weary yet triumphant, because that was when the great Kobe Bryant was at his greatest.


As Game 3 was about to tip-off, I was leaving my 21st birthday party/dinner. Kobe was hugging and dapping teammates on the bar's television screens. By the time I got in the car on the way home, L.A had a 12-11 lead in the first quarter, according to Lakers radio play-by-play man Spero Dedes. I listened to the remainder of the first quarter on A.M. frequencies. By the time I got home, the Lakers trailed by two, 28-26.

For the rest of the night, I joined the rest of my Lakers Nation affiliates in cheering my team to a hard-fought victory on the visitor's court. We had regained the home-court advantage. And let me tell 'ya, I couldn't have possibly asked for a better birthday present.


Walton's Wisdom said...

Very good observations. I hadn't drawn the parallel between Michael's late-career heroics and Kobe's -- probably because I haven't quite embraced the idea that Kobe is in the late stages of his career.

It's a shame directing traffic to these blogs is so difficult, because this is a good piece of writing and would probably lead to some spirited discussion by Kobe-lovers and Kobe-haters.

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