Kobe Bryant’s growth as a leader and the Lakers’ annual expectations of championships have been great and all, but it’s time to get back to the basics.
Very little has been as fundamental for this generation of sports fans as throwing a solo spotlight on Bryant and being amazed or offended by his sheer bravado (and improbable successes).
Bryant is never going to forget all he has learned the past decade about team building, but without the overriding story arc of the Lakers as title contenders, this season marks an opportunity for fans to focus back on their favorite character’s individual journey.
As usual, that journey compels us because of Bryant’s maniacal will, but he has greater odds to beat than one-on-five or life after Dwight Howard.
Bryant is trying to come back better than ever at age 35 with the athletic equivalent of a blown-out tire that can’t simply be replaced.
Bryant’s torn left Achilles tendon leaves him, after championship pressures from a team perspective year after year after year, with a very clear individual challenge.
And lest we forget, no one does individual challenges like Kobe Bryant.
How many of the game’s greats have dropped off after climbing as high on the mountain as Bryant stands now?
Consider this: If Bryant can play 2,470 minutes this season (200 fewer minutes than his usual allotment per season, even with two action-sapping lockouts averaged in), he will in that short time soar from No. 12 on the all-time NBA regular-season minutes list to No. 5.
Old, tired guys fall apart or fade away. They just do. And that’s why it’s so interesting that Bryant’s blown-out tire came now.
He had uncharacteristically begun to see the fanatical work he does behind the scenes to prepare to play becoming just that—work. He’d become as comfortable talking about retirement as that sixth NBA title.
Then fate intercedes and prods him to bow out understandably…just not on his terms.
And just like that, the psycho drive kicks right back in to the point he decides he’s definitely playing several more years, damn it.
Oh, and by the way, he has already logged way more playoff minutes than anyone in basketball history besides Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Bryant likely passes for No. 1 in that remarkable category should the Lakers play at least one six-game series this spring.
Any postseason Lakers action, though, feels far, far away. Unlike other Lakers seasons when fans (and sometimes players) have drifted through complacency, longing for the calendar to reach June, this one is captivating from the very start.
Bryant will not be ready for action when the Lakers reconvene Saturday for the beginning of his 18th NBA season, but he might well be there against the Clippers on Oct. 29 opening night.
Bryant isn’t a lone crusader with something to prove this season. Mike D’Antoni, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol each have their own career-saving tides to turn. But drama with those big names is practically nonexistent compared to what is building with Bryant and that Achilles.
And Bryant knows well by now how to milk that suspense, having gone quiet and stayed quiet as his rehab progresses toward full weight-bearing work and things get more serious for him.
Kobe playing for D’Antoni? Kobe sharing the ball with Nash? Kobe and Pau, together again? All of it is completely secondary.
This is foremost about Kobe trying to be Kobe again, which brings us back to the heart of him.
So much has changed since Bryant flat-out hijacked the old conversation by winning without Shaquille O’Neal.
You remember the old chatter. It boiled down to the one most hazardous-to-your-health word in team sports: selfish.
Even Phil Jackson’s closest confidantes were certain that Bryant, no matter that he’d won those 2000-02 NBA titles with Jackson, was better suited for a solo sport like tennis.
Yet just when you thought Bryant was going to have to lie all alone in the cold bed he’d made, he went and became someone else.
That new guy listened to Jackson, shared the power with Derek Fisher, trusted a partnership with Gasol, believed in the best instead of stressing over the worst in Lamar Odom, gave his private shooting regimen to put Trevor Ariza over the top and stayed uncommonly patient with Ron Artest.
Despite all that, Bryant hasn’t compromised his deepest principles.
Even as the conversation has evolved, there remains what many of Bryant’s core fans love most: He remains unafraid to indulge that self-absorbed bravado in what he knows better than ever is undeniably a team setting.
According to Jackson, Bryant began to understand it when fatherhood forced him to re-evaluate his single-minded mode of heavy-handed button-pushing.
You can’t just wait for the general manager to waive your kid or ship his ass out in a trade for Jason Kidd. So Bryant was forced to learn different ways to motivate and lead. Having seen how softer touches worked for Jackson, Bryant became someone more and more guys still feared and respected but also could understand.
There is no doubt anymore that Bryant is more than just selfish.
The wonderful paradox, however, is that he still sort of is.
He said last season he could keep going for years and years averaging 20 points and 12 assists, but we know he won’t do it.
He puts the ball in the hole, always has, and prides himself on doing it his way even as he has come to wield new weapons.
Now this season serves as a reminder how inspiring it can be to see Bryant, one man, persevere.
And he does want to show you things you’ve never seen before, things you didn’t believe could be done before.
It’s just that he wants to show himself first, thrill himself first, make himself proud first.
Yes, he is still selfish.
In some ways, we all should be.
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.