MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Love what you do.
Love what you do, and you'll have a chance to do it as long and as well as Kobe Bryant is doing his job.
Where does Bryant stand now as far as his love for the game goes, I ask Tuesday night.
“It’s probably a little bit more now than it’s ever been,” Bryant answers, “because there’s a finality to it.”
The end is likely just two-plus years away. Except the end threatened to come eight months ago, too.
“The love for the game is always there,” Bryant continues. “Now, because of the injury and because the finish line is a lot closer, you have a greater appreciation for the entire body of work—and trying to finish it out on your terms.”
This marks 18 years in the NBA. Bryant is 35 years old. The math is easy; it’s more than half his life.
Yes, he’s playing basketball. Again.
But let’s be clear: Playing is only part of the package when it comes to love for the game.
At the moment I’m talking to Bryant, it's after the latest best game of his comeback, a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies capped by this proclamation: “I’m getting back to being myself.” It's also while he’s sitting with his feet and ankles soaking in ice water, knees encased in massive ice packs.
He’s wearing black compression pants with football-style padding on them, the stuff he was wearing under his shorts and under his jersey long before just about anyone in the NBA.
His iPad mini is sitting behind him in his locker, waiting to be the only accessory in his hand when he heads off to the bus and then the plane, game footage to be studied ASAP and over and over.
Before the game, he had been lying face down on the massage table, getting his left calf literally pounded by a hammer to loosen atrophied muscles sorely unhappy about what has been thrust upon them after immobilization.
During the game, he had left the court in the first quarter when given his first rest, deciding to attack the stiffness that had been setting into his left ankle joint during recent games by doing more intricate manual therapy that requires more room to operate than the bench.
Oh, and then there are the two or three other workouts and treatments he’ll do every day.
Wife Vanessa has always called him “a workaholic,” Kobe’s ambition to excel including a zealous embrace of every possible step forward.
For so long, Bryant’s blessing has been his ability and enthusiasm to do the work, to run the sprints before dawn, to perfect the fundamentals while also unleashing new weapons. To that end, he would say practice was more fun than games. He sure loved what he did.
But Bryant began to grow tired in recent years of the all-encompassing grind.
He began to think about Michael Jordan getting not one but two breaks during a career that wasn’t even this long. He began to call himself “Vino” instead of “The Black Mamba,” dwelling on his old age to the point it’s surprising he didn’t change his number again from 8 to 24 to 65.
Then the Achilles.
And this is where the narrative might seem predictable. Such a terrible injury, but…
Blessing in disguise, right? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes?
Well, Bryant has already said he missed the game while it was taken away. And for sure, there aren’t too many legendary athletes who have something happen to them amid the light of tunnel’s end to provide fresh perspective on re-loving the game.
Look at Bryant on Tuesday night, smiling late in the fourth quarter as he dribbles with Tony Allen throwing his body against Bryant’s body. Bryant discreetly lands an elbow to Allen’s face on a post-up a moment later. Bryant ranks Allen at the top of the list of Kobe Stoppers, and so what a challenge to face him in the fourth road game in five nights right after an awfully creaky loss in Atlanta.
Bryant met his own goal to be “really, really assertive.” He overcame the scare of hyperextending his left knee when trying to spin past Allen. He nailed a pull-up jumper, strong enough to shoot through the contact.
Absolutely without a doubt, Bryant is overjoyed just to be back in the game, separate from how much he normally relishes winning it.
It has been four weeks since Bryant’s first full-team practice, and I ask Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni if he has seen frustrations from Bryant that he can’t do his old things.
“No, no, no,” D’Antoni replies. “He’s very in tune to what needs to be done and where he is and how he’s progressing. … I think he’s just working as hard as he can to get up as high of a level as he can as soon as he can.”
And it comes back to Bryant’s hard work again. And the tidy conclusion would be that he’s doing it all with renewed passion because he finally got a break from the grind at the most opportune time.
Except it’s not such a clean slate, because for Bryant it wasn’t a clean break at all. Even while his leg was in that boot, he was plotting his return, researching his courses of action, looking for all his edges—as usual.
Then came the baby steps back, and his past trainers Gary Vitti (worked with Magic Johnson) and Tim Grover (worked with Jordan) will tell you no one tends to his body as diligently/maniacally as Kobe Bryant.
“It wasn’t a break, man,” Bryant tells me now. “I had to do so much work. Getting ready and doing rehab and things like that, I didn’t have a chance to decompress or shut the engine completely off. It was constant push. Obviously in my career I haven’t had the chance to take a break a couple times just to get away from the game.”
He will bungee jump, play Candy Crush or watch movies for hours on end, but the flip side of that is he can’t deny how much or how long he has loved this game.
The injury has helped Bryant appreciate it all more, for sure. In his five games back, he has often looked like a guy simply excited to be playing—as seen in all the hopeful, low-percentage passes he has been throwing that become turnovers.
Yet if it was more work than ever to get back here, and if you refuse to settle for being here and insist on going for much, much more all over again…
“I’m doing more work now than I ever have,” Bryant says. “The discipline, the will, has to be there more now than it ever was.”
So the bottom line is that this isn’t fairy-tale stuff. It is still hard on him, really hard, to keep doing it after so long. The normal thing is to get hurt and get old, but Bryant simply will not do the other normal thing: lower the standards.
And what he does have working for him, remember, is the love for the game—bookended by possible finality on this side and that.
“It’s not the same march. It’s different in that sense,” Bryant says. “Especially players who have played as long as I have, the important thing that you want to be able to have is to go out on your own terms.”
Bryant’s terms? The same as ever.