Phoenix had no answer.
While everyone focused the week leading up to the game on the condition of Kobe’s knee, it is another injury that has plagued him all season and is almost mind-boggling that he continues to play: His broken index finger on his right shooting hand.
Really. Think about that.
Break a finger on your shooting hand and you still play. Not quite. No, you don’t still play but continue to dominate. What few fans realize is that Kobe had to reconstruct his shooting touch immediately following the injury.
Now, everyone has a faint idea that Kobe is a hard worker, a self-proclaimed gym rat. Even the week between the Utah Jazz sweep and the opening of the Phoenix series, Kobe still hit the gym and hit it hard.
It was just that he didn’t participate in scrimmages or much team practice time because of the swollen knee. Instead, he worked out in the gym lifting weights and out on the court shooting.
That's the number of jumpers Bryant takes in the offseason. To me, there is no denying that Kobe is the hardest working player in the NBA—and there is no coincidence that he is the best player in the NBA as well. He displays the perfect marriage of talent and effort.
The end result is greatness.
But, what happens when a bullet is removed from his chamber as was the case this year when he broke the finger? Most players would simply opt for the surgery and sit out. But not the warrior Kobe. Instead, he went back to the gym.
Right now, as the Los Angeles Lakers continue their drive to a repeat title, people are already forgetting that Kobe is the wounded gladiator. Against the Phoenix Suns in Game One of the Western Conference Finals, Kobe dominated and reminded everyone he is still by far the best player on the planet (memo to Cavs fans: it’s rings that count as real greatness).
Kobe scored from all over and had his jumper going. Coach Alvin Gentry of the Suns said when Kobe hits his outside shot, the Lakers are unbeatable.
Well, none of that great shooting happened by accident nor lack of effort. No, more importantly, none of those points happen without Kobe’s secret weapon: The Rifleman.
Last October, the Lakers added a special assistant coach to their bench: Chuck “The Rifleman” Person. Person was named the NBA Rookie of the Year for 1986-87 after averaging 18.8 points per game, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. He was a star in the late '80s and '90s with the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Person had unlimited range and was known as a three-point specialist. His shooting prowess and touch were nearly unmatched. Reggie Miller (one of, if not, the league’s greatest shooters) considers Person an equal.
When Person joined the Lakers last fall, the storyline went that he was there to help Ron Artest, not only in refining and improving the player’s shooting but also helping maintain harmony with the addition of the volatile player.
But, Artest has proved to be the model citizen this year on his way to helping everyone forget Trevor Ariza. So, Person moved on from Ron Ron.
When Kobe busted his finger, his shot went out the window. He faced surgery, but wouldn’t consider that option. So, instead, he did what he always did: Kobe went back to the gym. But, this time, he brought Chuck Person.
Person worked repeatedly with Kobe to adjust the superstar’s shot and compensate for the pain and lack of strength in his shot release. Person worked tirelessly with Kobe, before games and during practice sessions.
Even at points in-game, you will see Person give a hint or suggestion to Kobe as the superstar rests on the bench. It has become a beneficial relationship.
The results speak for themselves.
Kobe not only got rest for his aching body with the sweep of the Utah Jazz, but the time off also gave him more time to work with Person. The Suns can tell you how that work paid off.
Game One proved that the Lakers are for real. Everyone is on alert and notice. The red-hot Suns got blasted. The Lakers again were led by their injured leader. Kobe was able to do this because he’d added that special weapon.
The future is bright for Person as well. The former Auburn player (a teammate of Charles Barkley’s, no less) is a talented coach and time will tell if he finds a head coaching position, either in the pros or college.
For now, he’s right where he needs to be, helping No. 24 maintain his shooting prowess. This time, a Rifleman really can help a Mamba.