Just Showing Up Is Its Own Reward for Kobe Bryant in His Farewell Season

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Just Showing Up Is Its Own Reward for Kobe Bryant in His Farewell Season
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NEW ORLEANS — The ill-fitting Boston affiliation notwithstanding, Kobe Bryant has always seen himself as something of a New England Patriot.

Bryant identifies with Tom Brady's glamour and greatness, he admires Bill Belichick's calculating nature, and he even once took to giving himself the code name "Moss" in the Lakers offense—as in Randy Moss, once Brady's deep target—as the big-play decoy opening offense up for teammates.

But Bryant's respect for Peyton Manning—and specifically Manning's maniacal preparation—has always stood as something different.

Their kinship runs even deeper now. Any simpleton can see how both players' bodies have broken down from their unwavering commitment to productivity over so many years—and you've heard fans and analysts alike mutter rudimentary takes about how pathetic it is to see them so less than great.

The nuance that needs to be understood is that even if Manning loses the Super Bowl on Sunday in what could be his final game, even if Bryant's past three games (29.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 turnovers per game) can never be duplicated the rest of his final season, there is beauty in the attempt.

Going out there and putting it on the line in the field of play, for better or worse, is just one part of it. The preparation just to be able to enter that field of play for Manning, 39, in his 18th season, and for Bryant, 37, in his 20th, never gets acknowledged with ovations, but still doing all that dirty work is inspiring on its own.

It's easy to misread Bryant's far more relaxed and almost noncompetitive demeanor on the court in this dead-end Lakers season—and his absence from most team workouts—as evidence he isn't investing as much.

You have no idea.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The amount of prep work that Bryant did not only to get his surgically repaired shoulder ready but also his legs in the offseason for a final push was as hardcore as ever. That regimen continues now behind the scenes to an irrational level to activate a body that no longer wants to be activated.

"Vino" is not fine wine anymore. He is well past that mystery date when age adds the most haunting complexity. This wine has been overheated instead of stored properly, carries a dried-out cork and definitely gives off some whiffs of vinegar these days.

Yet Bryant and Lakers physical therapist Judy Seto still use every imaginable tactic to bring the big, bold flavor back—and have succeeded the past two games, both rare Lakers victories.

"I've just been working, trying to get my legs," Bryant said. "It's hard; it's hard. Twenty years and all these injuries, it's tough. I just try to stay with it. Work. Run every day. Lift. Stretch."

He said he senses "consistency to my legs" lately, helping his jump shot. He laughed about younger days when he could embark on a three-day training program to fix whatever was wrong and emerge at the other end of the tunnel feeling reborn.

No more.   

Bryant saw firsthand how Steve Nash, another zealous overachiever, poured more than he ever had into efforts to bring his body back…and was left with nothing but refusal. Despite Bryant's own "I freaking suck" confusion three months ago, which largely was the result of a bruised calf suffered in the preseason, he persisted with his process.

Here in the city where Manning grew up with a Mardi Gras backdrop, Bryant was joyous over the small reward he received Thursday night, a rare win while scoring 27 points and gathering 12 rebounds.

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

The rest of his trip is daunting: farewell games in San Antonio, Indiana and Cleveland before Bryant goes up to Toronto to be feted at his final All-Star Game.

Of those dates, Saturday in San Antonio will be special. The Spurs are not unlike the Patriots that Bryant so respects—coming back at a high level so many times.

Before the Warriors and Spurs were linked through their current age of excellence, it was the Lakers and the Spurs.

More specifically, though, it was Kobe and the Spurs.

In seven of Bryant's 19 seasons, the Lakers ran up against San Antonio in the NBA playoffs. He's 4-3, though Bryant didn't play the last time the teams met—the Lakers' last playoff appearance, a Spurs sweep, after Bryant's torn Achilles in 2013.

San Antonio also swept the Lakers in Bryant's first series against them in 1999—and he thanks Gregg Popovich's team for "such a mental game, such a mistake-free game."

Again, there's that appreciation for the highest degrees of preparation.

"They forced me to raise my game to a championship level very, very quickly," Bryant said.

The NBA has five players who have been with their current teams for at least 13 years, and besides Bryant and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, the Spurs have the other three: Tim Duncan (18 years), Tony Parker (14) and Manu Ginobili (13).

Bryant has possessed some of Parker's flash, Ginobili's creativity and Duncan's dedication, but the Spurs always had each other to lean on against Bryant. (Now they have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and those guys—not the old vets—are the Spurs' two All-Stars.)

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Duncan isn't expected to play Saturday because of a sore knee. Ginobili definitely is out after testicular surgery. These are the unsurprising realities of being retirement-ready players, as Manning also discovered in what looked to be a terribly demoralizing season because of the torn plantar fascia in his left foot.

After this final visit to San Antonio, Bryant will move on to Manning's longtime home of Indianapolis, where the Lakers will watch the Super Bowl on their off day—and where Manning remains one of Indiana's iconic athletes.

Bryant has said how "moving" and "touching" it was to see Derek Jeter walking off the field, into the tunnel and toward the quiet of retirement in 2014. Manning's exit would resonate much the same.

But nothing can change the pride a great athlete takes in at least having done his best preparation. "You can't skip steps," Bryant has always said.

It's why if Bryant's body never responded well enough for him to swish a dagger three-pointer like he just did in New Orleans, so be it.

Honesty and poetry can be found in efforts more than outcomes.

"When you've left no stone unturned," Bryant said, "you can be comfortable in that defeat."

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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