DENVER -- Kobe Bryant has picked up the moniker "Coach Kobe" in recent seasons because of a couple of stretches when he has been injured and focused his attention toward instructing his teammates on the bench. Turns out that at the same time, Bryant's mere existence had been influencing the coaching of Brian Shaw.
"It’s been one of my best tools," Shaw, in his first year as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, said before Wednesday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers. "When I was in Indiana, Paul George, a player that I worked closely with, grew up in Palmdale [Calif.], right outside of L.A., and obviously I knew he had watched Kobe a lot and kind of idolized him as a player.
"So I would come in and if he was trying to cut corners or just wanted to just do enough to get through a practice, I would always remind him that I had seen the best guy at that position work every day and that it was no accident that he is as good as he is and he’s accomplished everything that he’s been able to accomplish. So, what makes you think that you can take a day off or cut this corner or that corner if that guy over on the other coast is not doing that?"
George, who wears Bryant's No. 24, helped lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season and is tied with Houston's James Harden for fourth on the NBA's scoring list at 24.9 points per game this season as Indiana has raced out to an 8-0 start.
The Kobe coaching carrot works so well that sometimes Shaw doesn't even need to offer it up. His players come to him seeking war stories of what it was like to be down in the barracks with Bryant.
"This morning, one of our young guys, Quincy Miller, actually asked me a bunch of questions about Kobe," Shaw said of his 20-year-old forward. "What people don’t really understand is the discipline to just come in the morning and stretch for 30 minutes by yourself when no one else is around, do the therapy and rehab and get your work in before practice even starts so when practice does come around, it’s like a second practice for him.
"Nobody believes that he used to come in at 6 o’clock in the morning, but by the time that even the coaches got in in the morning, he had already been through a full sweat and he was kind of winding down from his own personal workout. So, he’s a special individual that I was fortunate to be around as a player and as a coach. And anytime that I can use examples to show how he kind of got to the level he did and maintained and stayed at that level, I try to use it."
After winning five championships in L.A. together -- three as teammates and two with Shaw as an assistant coach -- the pair still keep in touch "once or twice a month," according to Shaw, even though they are now opponents.
"I was mentioning to somebody this morning how he’s still not at the age that I was when I finished my career playing and just talking about how he always felt invincible and I would always say, 'Hey, you know, Father Time will catch up with you at some point and ice will be your best friend at some point,'" said Shaw, who was 36 when he finished his 14th and final NBA season with the Lakers in 2002-03. "I think he’s seeing that now. But if anybody can come back and defy the odds in terms of the injury that he’s dealing with, my money would be on him to be able to do that."
Shaw said the fact Bryant is still sidelined with his Achilles tear 10 games into the season shows that he has begun to think of his body in more mortal terms, even if his resolve to return hasn't wavered.
"I think that part of it alone speaks volumes," Shaw said. "I think he understands at this point, even when he was pushing it and trying to be back for the beginning of the season, that that particular injury is a tough one. Especially with all the wear and tear that he has on his body. So, I think it’s made him take a step back and take a deep breath and say, 'OK, this is one that I have to actually allow to kind of fall in place and take care of itself.'"
Shaw said he has no idea when Bryant will take the court for the first time since undergoing surgery in April, but added, "I know he’ll do everything in his power to strengthen up that area that’s injured and give himself every chance to come back and play at the level that he’s accustomed to playing at."
He also knows that whether Bryant is playing or not, he'll still be a valuable reference point when trying to connect with his Nuggets team.
"Kobe, there’s a uniqueness about him in terms of his will to compete and to want to be the best -- his thirst for being the best -- that no one else has, and so I understand that," Shaw said. "But anytime I can use a story or an analogy to try to motivate guys to understand what it really takes to be good and to perform on that level night in and night out, especially when every team is game planning to stop you, I use it."