When you become as old as Kobe Bryant, there are a lot of memory lanes.
And if you find yourself strolling down literally the same street as you did before, you might regret a little and reminisce a lot. Or you could do something different right there based on all you’ve learned and create an entirely new memory—ideally a better one.
Guess which kind of person Bryant is.
For as awe-inspiring as he can be, more than revelation he is revolution. He wants more; he wants better. And for as determined as he is to fight for that cause, even more than revolution he is evolution.
The crux of Bryant’s career has been self-improvement, which is kind of funny considering what a stubborn jackass he can be.
One of his personal Nike T-shirts reads: “HALF SKILL, HALF WILL.” And whatever his DNA advantages coming into this, for Bryant there is a basic cycle of life wherein you try, you learn, you evolve and you become better than someone else.
Far too many don’t even make it through Step 1.
That philosophy feeds Bryant’s confidence that he can always accomplish the unexpected, including what he now hopes will be a prolific comeback from this ruptured Achilles tendon. Bryant is set to test himself in practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with a possible debut Friday night in Sacramento almost eight months after going down but getting up momentarily to sink those two free throws.
The free throws were classic Kobe: taking a moment and owning it in his special way, rewriting the story so that he has an effort—and victory—to savor and not just that painful memory of crumpling to the floor.
What is not so well understood is that Bryant has indeed changed over the years. Mellowed in a lot of ways. He engages people far better now, whether in person or via social media, and he understands that drama can be an energy drain even more than it helps him stay on edge.
His goals to improve himself are not restricted to the basketball court. So there Bryant was on Thanksgiving, in the very same Birmingham, Mich., hotel where he stayed nine-and-a-half years ago and lost Games 3, 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals in stunning succession.
Instead of sitting there recalling those Detroit fans hooting and honking horns on the parking-garage roof outside the Townsend Hotel, the massive disconnect between him and the soon-to-be-traded Shaquille O’Neal, the sexual assault charge...
The guy who was once such an infamous teammate paid for the turkey and all the trimmings for the Lakers’ entire traveling party at the hotel Thursday, and he stayed down there through watching the NFL games, tossing a football around and just chillin’ with his Lakers family. He stayed longer than any player on the team.
There was a ping-pong table in the hotel ballroom, and despite being one of the lesser players there when it came to that sport, Bryant took the trash talk with good humor. And in that spirit of self-improvement, Bryant kept playing and kept trying to grow his game.
He kept gesturing to Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell, who grew up with a ping-pong table in his house, and telling Trudell, “Let’s go again”...and Bryant would lose again and again and again. Was Shawne Williams’ 20-point uprising the day after Thanksgiving in the victory over the Pistons—Williams hadn’t scored in double figures once all season—a product of his confidence boost from schooling Bryant (and enjoying talking so much trash to Bryant) at the ping-pong table?
Bryant’s social activity was not some recent development, though; he has lingered long in similar situations at past Super Bowl parties on the road and bonded with teammates on levels that younger Kobe simply could not do. He has been the one advising those who tend to be reclusive to get out and about more often.
Yet there’s something that goes beyond that here with a Lakers team that has enjoyed such a rapid thaw from the icy Dwight Howard season.
Consider that Pau Gasol is extra excited for Bryant to play because it’s palpable just how much this group wants Bryant to succeed.
“The way everybody looks up to him,” Gasol said, “will translate into energy and communication and cohesiveness.”
Players, staff or management—all have been embraced by Bryant. He abided by the Lakers’ preferences regarding his Achilles repair and rehab instead of going his own way.
While he has been out, he has found himself admiring what Xavier Henry describes this way: “We’ve got a lot of fighters.” Bryant and the Lakers, right or wrong, are tighter than ever—as shown by the signing of that $48.5 million extension before he even played his first game as a 35-year-old.
What the deal should be understood really to be is an extension of Jerry Buss’ reach as Lakers owner, the man who in 2003 said about Bryant, “I’m not about to trade my son,” and then made good on the vow despite Bryant’s trade demand four years later.
The day the Lakers’ season ended in 2004 with Game 5 lost at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the team returned to the Townsend Hotel for the night before heading home the next day. Buss had the hotel ballroom stocked with food and drink for everyone to lick their wounds together, and it turned out that Buss and Bryant stayed up especially late talking.
One month later, in his first chance at NBA free agency, Bryant, 25, was ready to leave the Lakers for the Clippers. Buss called from Europe the day Bryant was deciding.
Bryant stayed with the Lakers—and said it was Buss who got “the last word.”
Buss is gone now, putting into some perspective all our breathless talk about Achilles tendon health and basketball mortality. But as we begin to measure Bryant’s latest leap forward, please duly note that Buss would feel immense pride at this much:
After everything that Bryant has ever wanted to change, his stripes have not changed.
Worn with his own immense pride, they remain purple and gold, more so than ever.