Kobe Bryant: Forever LA’s darling

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The Lakers picked up their third win of the season tonight, to sit comfortably beside their nine losses, but their latest opponents, the Houston Rockets (who have the third best record in the league) are no pushovers. Kevin McHale’s team were without Dwight Howard against LA, and he’s averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds. Stripped of such a productive asset, some might look at this Lakers win, a narrow one, as a lucky one-off, but that would conceal the small resurgence the Lakers have had recently. Nick Young’s return from his thumb injury has been significant, and it’s no coincidence that his first two games back have been two wins. Young’s point differential was +9 against the Rockets, the same as Kobe Bryant. And speaking of the Black Mamba, Bryant led all scorers against Houston and finished with 29 points. He leads the league in scoring and, at 36, he seems perfectly able to retain that lofty mantle for at least a few months to come. It helps that he gets literally every single shot he wants with this Lakers team, a more-than-lacklustre roster that looks undermatched against almost every other team in the NBA. He took 28 shots tonight, nearly double the amount anyone else on his team took. Efficiency will not be the name of the game for Bryant this season, and many of his attempts in the fourth quarter, when the game was still very much in the balance, were, to put it nicely, fairly low percentage shots. Still, with 27.5 points a game and no one of note on his team, Kobe will continue to get every shot he wants, no matter how profligate he is.

I write this from my hotel room in Los Angeles and, having only been in this wondrously sunny (even entrenched in winter as we are) city a few days now, I have already gauged the strange feeling that the City of Angels is experiencing. Never before has the city’s most popular basketball franchise been so impoverished, so destined for wallowing failure in a season, particularly when their perennial younger sibling, the Los Angeles Clippers, are so flushed with talent and hope. In a shoe store today, I overheard the employees talking about tonight’s Lakers game. I expected to hear at least a glimmer of a mention of Bryant, of his monster contract that so weighs the Lakers down financially, of his age and his ailing (though still effective, obviously) talent. I expected the city to feel a strange mix of emotions toward their golden boy, the best player to play (and stay) there for as long as Bryant has. He seems to be the one massive obstacle stopping the franchise from fully resetting and rebuilding, an anchor mournfully reminding them of the glorious days past, and like a ball and chain, stopping them from fighting into a new, equally sanguine future.

But I didn’t hear that, while eavesdropping and trying on the white Reeboks that were too big for me. What I heard was loving, it was grateful, it was even more affectionate than ever. Then I watched the game in question where, aided essentially by Nick Young, Kobe shot over and over, missed many more than he scored, and dragged the Lakers, playing on the road, to an unlikely victory over the Rockets, again let’s mention, who are the third best team in the league. I thought that this pitiful season, doomed and unassociated with the playoffs as it will surely be, would turn Bryant into a resentful symbol of the past, into a villain, or at least into a less beloved hero. But it seems to have had the opposite effect, and Kobe is loved and appreciated even more by this famous city.

Watching Kobe Bryant play tells you why this is. His work ethic has never been questioned, in fact it has been vocally lauded throughout his career. I’ll take this opportunity to retell a story I read on Reddit about the man, from a user claiming to have worked with him, as well as other NBA stars during his career as an athletic trainer. This was posted just a year ago.

I’ve been a professional athletic trainer for about 16 years and have been able to work with a range of athletes from the high school to professional level. Right now I run in a clinic in Cincinnati and have most recently been training with some players on the Bengals.

I activated my reddit account just a moment ago and because I’ve been seeing the videos of Kobe’s most recent dunks and the comments you guys have had to share I decided I might as well chime in what I know about the man. And let me just state by saying that this story doesn’t touch on anything we don’t know about Kobe but rather that he simply is not human when he is working on his craft.

I was invited to Las Vegas this past Summer to help Team USA with their conditioning before they head off to London, and as we know they would eventually bring home the Gold (USA). I’ve had the opportunity to work with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in the past but this would be my first interaction with Kobe. We first met three days before the first scrimmage, on the day of the first practice, early July. It was a brief conversation where we talked about conditioning, where he would like to be by the end of the Summer, and we talked a little bit about the hustle of the Select Team. Then he got my number and I let him know that if he ever wanted some extra training he could hit me up any time.

The night before the first scrimmage I remember I was just watched “Casablanca” for the first time and it was about 3:30 AM. I lay in bed, slowly fading away when I hear my cell ring. It was Kobe. I nervously picked up.

“Hey, uhh Rob, I hope I’m not disturbing anything right?”

“Uhh no, what’s up Kob?”

“Just wondering if you could just help me out with some conditioning work, that’s all.”

I checked my clock. 4:15 AM.

“Yeah sure, I’ll see you in the facility in a bit.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get my gear and out of the hotel. When I arrived and opened the room to the main practice floor I saw Kobe. Alone. He was drenched in sweat as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn’t even 5AM.

We did some conditioning work for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Then we entered the weight room, where he would do a multitude of strength training exercises for the next 45 minutes. After that we parted ways and he went back to the practice floor to shoot. I went back to the hotel and crashed. Wow.

I was expected to be at the floor again at about 11 AM. I woke up feeling sleepy, drowsy, and almost pretty much every side effect of sleep deprivation. Thanks, Kobe. I had a bagel and headed to the practice facility.

This next part I remember very vividly. All the Team USA players were there, feeling good for the first scrimmage. LeBron was talking to Carmelo if I remember correctly and Coach Krzyzewski was trying to explain something to Kevin Durant. On the right side of the practice facility was Kobe by himself shooting jumpers. And this is how our next conversation went — I went over to him, patted him on the back and said, “Good work this morning.”

“Huh?”

“Like, the conditioning. Good work.”

“Oh. Yeah, thanks Rob. I really appreciate it.”

“So when did you finish?”

“Finish what?”

“Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?”

“Oh just now. I wanted 800 makes so yeah, just now.”

My jaw dropped. Mother of holy God. It was then that I realized that there’s no surprise to why he’s been as effective as he was last season. Every story about his dedication, every quote that he’s said about hard work all came together and hit me like a train. It’s no surprise to me now that he’s dunking on players ten years younger than him and it wasn’t a surprise to me earlier this year when he led the league in scoring.

For all I actually know, the anecdote is completely fabricated and maybe this “RobertAlert” Redditor is some spotty kid in a basement somewhere. But the story about Kobe, and his superhuman work ethic, certainly seems plausible, considering all that we’ve heard about his dedication to the game. And it’s this that you see on the court, even now, even after his Achilles injury and his ACL tear. He played 37 minutes in the win over Atlanta yesterday, and 40 minutes in the win over Houston. Sportcenter’s Stan Verrett asked him on the show that immediately followed the Houston win whether or not he could keep this sort of involvement up, at his age. Bryant’s reply? That he’s “worked hard over the summer” and that he’s prepared himself as best he can to deal with the responsibility that an entire city is heaping upon him. With that story in mind, we can believe he has.

This season, which will end in a terrible losing record for the Lakers, will only serve to swell the adoration LA has for Kobe. He is their only star, their only shining light, still the only player the fans would trust to take the game-winning shot. If he can keep this pace up (and who can say he won’t), and he remains healthy, he might well finish the season as scoring champion. He is a rugged athlete still, and his competitive spirit burns like a supernova. He is LA’s favourite son and, salary cap anchor or not, he’ll shoulder their vain hopes for this season and they will love him even more for it.

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