Aging can do funny things to people. It can drive the sedan-loyal to sports cars, the faithful to cheat (affairs conducted, perhaps, in their new sports cars). Others head to Dr. 90210 for medical work unlikely to be covered by their HMO.
For professional athletes, who generally live in a fishbowl of money, fame, ego, competitiveness, will, achievement, and beyond, the aging process is even scarier. Tom Petty can still play big venues 35 years after his first studio release. When Tom Hanks turns 75, there will still be roles waiting for him.
But athletes, no matter how elite, are all stamped with an expiration date. Some are lucky enough to extend theirs, whether through hard work, luck, or a combination of the two, but eventually the bell will toll.
Even for Kobe Bryant.
This season, 24 has spent most of the year fighting pain. A broken finger, a severely twisted ankle, a bad back, tweaked elbow, the swollen knee, and a variety of other stuff he probably never mentioned out loud. Some look at it as evidence of all-out decline (as opposed to something more natural and gradual). I'm not ready to leap on that bandwagon; All players get hurt, Kobe has been remarkably healthy over the last few years, and it might be wise to wait for a season in which he's not a lock to finish top five in MVP voting before grabbing our shovels and flinging dirt on the guy.
One (still productive) banged-up year doesn't constitute a pattern nor a death sentence.
But there's no question he's not the same player he was five or ten years ago, and even the implication of decline scares the heck out of people around L.A., for a variety of reasons. Some are basic and reasonable: If Kobe starts to go, how do the Lakers remain an elite level team? Can Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol fill whatever void a diminished Bryant leaves behind? The team just inked Bryant to an extremely expensive (and, for the record, wise and justified) three-year contract extension.
If he falls off the proverbial cliff, they're in dire payroll straits, too.
I don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about the semi-twilight of Kobe's career. In skiing terms, I see his downside as a green circle, not a double black diamond. No athlete takes better care of his body, and more importantly, he's self-aware enough to recognize and adjust to reality. Recently, he talked about the aging process on ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt Show:
"You have to be honest with yourself. There's certain things that I could do then that I can't do now. I think once you make that level of assessment, you can still be as effective or as efficient as your team needs you to be. You just have to do it differently, and I think that's the challenge of aging or your body maturing."
The irony is Kobe seems more comfortable with this process than many of the fans who cheer for him.
Make no mistake: Kobe is off-the-charts competitive, and wants to be able to dominate. He doesn't cede any title- be it best player, best closer, best leader, and particularly best champion- willingly. But he has actively sought to stay ahead of the aging curve by expanding his game, adding a wider variety of jump shots and a stunning array of post moves, all designed to lessen the need to throw his body at defenders under the bucket 15 times a night. There's a reason his free throw attempts are down over the last three seasons relative to his most free-wheelin' days, despite a usage rate remaining above his career norms.
He simply doesn't attack the rim like he used to, because there's more than one way to dominate a game.
He's cool with it, I'm cool with it, but many Kobe fans aren't. There's a deep, emotional attachment to the idea Bryant is- must!- be the league's best player. He must be the most dominant, the most capable of anything. His game is not changing, because to acknowledge this is to acknowledge vulnerability, and Kobe has none.
Many of these fans have invested so much into Bryant, particularly through darker periods, it's hard to step off the gas. They've defended him when others piled on, often going beyond the bounds of fairness. Add a sports culture constantly eroding the topsoil of perspective, and the phenomenon becomes more interesting. If Kobe isn't the best in the NBA, and he's not, he must have one Nike in the grave, right?
Fortunately for fans, Bryant has a healthier attitude. If he was unable to recognize his own vulnerability as an athlete, likely he'd be far less productive at this point in his career, because he never would have recognized the need for and necessity of change. He'd be trying to play at 31 like he did at 21. The evolution of his game would be far narrower in scope, as would his achievements.
Bryant treats nearly everything about basketball as a puzzle to be solved as the sand consistently shifts around him. This summer, he'll process the challenges placed in front of him by his body, just as he might those presented by young, long wings like Thabo Sefolosha and Nicolas Batum.
How he does it could make the next few years as fascinating as the ones coming before.