Kobe Bryant looks for closing touch
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mariano Rivera is both inspiration and cautionary tale to Kobe Bryant, an example of overcoming a major injury late in a Hall of Fame career and a reminder that when the end does come it's not always on chosen terms.
Bryant first linked himself to Rivera in 2002, when he donned the Yankees closer's pinstriped No. 42 on his way to the arena for a playoff game. Now it's clear that Kobe is using Rivera's return to All-Star form this season – a year after Rivera suffered a torn ACL – as part of his motivational mental notes as Bryant attempts his own comeback from a torn Achilles tendon.
"It's the same old story," Bryant said Saturday, as the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers assembled and met with the media for the first time. "A guy that was written off and forgotten a little bit. He did the work, he put the time in, and he came back and played extremely well. Peyton Manning, same thing. Everybody wrote him off a few years ago, and all of a sudden ...
"You definitely pull from a myriad of those guys."
The illustrations are out there. So are the challenges that light his easily combustible competitive fires. He wants to prove that his days among the league's elite didn't end when he went down with that Achilles tear on April 12. He wants to show that the Lakers' status as championship contenders didn't end when Dwight Howard left for Houston (not that they came anywhere close to a championship with him).
But one thing the end of Rivera's career reminds us of is that not even the greats are allowed complete control of their departures. Yes, Rivera's exit from the Yankee Stadium mound, summoned by Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, was a touching moment. And yes, Bryant caught it, even though he was in Dubai.
"It was incredible, man," Bryant said. "He's one of the greatest athletes that we'll ever see -- what he's been able to accomplish, what he's been able to do. I've been a big Mariano fan for a long, long time. It's a shame that he's kind of hanging it up. But it's still good to see."
It's also a shame that the Yankees didn't qualify for the playoffs. The man who made his name with dominant postseason performances won't get to pitch in October again ... which makes us wonder if we'll see Kobe, veteran of seven NBA Finals, play again in June.
The Lakers aren't even picked to be the top team in their building this season. Besides the Clippers there are the Thunder, the eternal Spurs, the up-and-coming Warriors and, yes, Dwight Howard's Rockets above them on the Western Conference ladder.
The Lakers can't entertain thoughts of disrupting that hierarchy until they know exactly what they have in Bryant. Although he reports good progress in his recovery, he still isn't ready to run without the AlterG machine alleviating his weight, still can't do defensive drills, still can't practice. Last season, at age 34, Bryant managed to finish fifth in the most valuable player voting ... after posting scoring and shooting numbers that ranked among the top seven in his career.
Let's say Bryant returns to form. The Lakers' media day was filled with talk that the infusion of youth (from the likes of Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry) and a full training camp to implement Mike D'Antoni's system can make up for the departures of Howard and Metta World Peace. "We may not be as talented at the top as like last year, but I think we've gotten younger," Steve Nash said. "I think we've gotten more athletic, we've got more shooters, we can space the floor, we can play the way Mike wants us to play.
"Although you would look at it from the outside and it looks as though we've gone from being a favorite to a noncontender, we still have an opportunity to build a great team, find some chemistry and find a way to be really successful."
Nash, 39, is the oldest player in the NBA. Ironically, he's the only one of the Lakers' main trio who is ready to go all out at the start of training camp. Pau Gasol, who had surgical procedures on his knees and back this summer, said he might need a few days before he can fully participate in practice.
But there's already talk of limiting Nash's minutes and keeping him out of back-to-back games. Nash played only 45 games last season because of a broken bone in his leg and the lingering side effects. Even though Nash is four years older than Bryant, they've both been in the league since 1996, when Kobe entered the draft straight out of high school. As much as Bryant wants to play all 82 games, he sent signals Saturday that he would not rush back before he's ready, even if the team is struggling without him. (For what it's worth, the Lakers went 3-1 without Kobe last season and picked up one of their best victories of the season, at Indiana, in a game in which he played only 12 minutes.)
Bryant, whose date of birth is Aug. 23, 1978, is one of only 30 active NBA players who were born in the 1970s. The others are Atlanta's Elton Brand (1979); Brooklyn's Kevin Garnett (1976), Paul Pierce (1977) and Jason Terry (1977); New York's Kenyon Martin (1977), Pablo Prigioni (1977) and Metta World Peace (1979); Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki (1978), Shawn Marion (1978) and Vince Carter (1977); San Antonio's Tim Duncan (1976) and Manu Ginobili (1977); Chicago's Nazr Mohammed (1977); Detroit's Chauncey Billups (1976); Denver's Andre Miller (1976); Portland's Earl Watson (1979); Oklahoma City's Derek Fisher (1974); Charlotte's Jannero Pargo (1979) and Brendan Haywood (1979); Miami's Ray Allen (1975), Chris Andersen (1978), Shane Battier (1978) and Rashard Lewis (1979); Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu (1979); Golden State's Jermaine O'Neal (1978); the Clippers' Antawn Jamison (1976); Sacramento's John Salmons (1979); and Kobe's teammates Nash (1974) and Dan Gadzuric (1978).
Those are the colleagues by calendar. Bryant's career achievements put him in the company of Peyton Manning and Mariano Rivera. One is as excellent as ever, one is exiting the stage and Kobe is somewhere in the middle, determined to show he still has it. Even though Bryant isn't under contract beyond this season, nothing about his demeanor Saturday suggested that he felt nostalgic. He didn't have the air of a man about to embark on a melancholy farewell tour around the league. Then again, it didn't feel like a coronation either.
The media day turnout was smaller than last year, fewer national media members around. The big stories were elsewhere. We'll still pay attention to Kobe, even though at this stage it might simply be habitual, as with Mariano Rivera, more a product of our memories than the present performance.