LOS ANGELES -- During timeouts, the Los Angeles Lakers huddled but Kobe Bryant remained on the bench, nursing every possible second of rest until the star shooting guard absolutely had to join them on the court when play was about to resume.
He labored as he brought the ball up the court. He looked to pass more often than usual. His shots kept clanking off the iron.
Something was wrong -- and not just wrong, but different. Bryant wasn’t himself in the Lakers’ 93-80 loss Friday to the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center.
Lakers coach Byron Scott revealed that the 36-year-old Bryant had played 36 minutes while sick. Bryant has played ill many times before, and he had willed his body to overcome on those nights, to still put up big numbers.
But not Friday.
He has attempted at least 10 shots in a game 1,154 times in his career, but Friday was his worst field goal percentage in any of them: 7.1 after a 1-for-14 performance.
“He’s in the training room right now, and he doesn’t look good,” Lakers guard Jeremy Lin said. “I just got out of there, and he doesn’t look good at all.”
After an extended stay in the team’s training room, Bryant slowly walked to his locker, where a large media scrum waited.
Often, Bryant stands as he answers questions at his locker, but this time he headed for the black swivel chair that sits in front of it. He sank into it, letting out a deep breath. He leaned forward, his arms resting on his knees, looking worn. He stared down at the floor, as if he were too fatigued to even lift his head.
He spoke quietly, and after three minutes, the crowd dispersed, but what he said during that time was so unlike anything Bryant has said to this point in his NBA career, now in its 19th season.
Kobe Bryant admitted his mortality.
“I didn’t feel too good,” he began, “but I’m used to playing through that.
“Tonight was one of those nights where it makes me really remember the challenge of being 36 and being 19 years in.
“And the body just won’t respond.
“And you’re sick.”
“And you’re used to trying to fight through those things.
“And it just helps me really remember what I’m facing.
“It’s tough,” he repeated.
Bryant entered the game averaging a league-high 27.5 points per game, and this after no NBA player has ever averaged at least 26 points per game at 36 years of age or older.
Not only that, but Bryant was putting up those numbers after two recent major injuries -- a fractured knee and torn Achilles -- plus a ton of mileage on his legs.
Father Time is undefeated, sure, but Bryant was putting up one hell of a fight. His performances seemed superhuman, even if he was firing shots (and missing many of them) at an alarming rate, even if he seemed to be playing way too many minutes.
It was entertaining, at least. Bryant was turning back the irreversible hands of time, providing more than a few highlights each night that made him look a decade younger. The Lakers were losing, but he looked like his old self, which made for great theater.
And then Friday happened.
A dead giveaway that something was amiss is that Bryant only took 14 shots in 36 minutes, nearly 10 fewer attempts than his league-high average coming in.
Bryant finished with 9 points, 7 of them on free throws. He missed his first 10 field goal attempts and didn't make one until the fourth quarter.
Bryant said he started feeling achy Friday in the morning.
“It’s no excuse,” he said.
Why couldn’t he overcome it, though? Like before? What was different?
“Nineteen years [in the NBA], that’s what’s different,” he said, flatly. “No, honestly.”
He said he now has to adjust his recovery program, but could he play Sunday, when the 1-8 Lakers face the Golden State Warriors?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “This is the first I’ve faced this type of challenge in my career. Honestly I don’t know.”
The bigger question: Why did he play so much, especially in a lopsided game that the Spurs led by as much as 26 points in the second half?
Scott said he did think about sitting Bryant.
“But he also wanted to see if he could push through it,” Scott said, “and I wanted to give him that opportunity.”
The heavy minutes load that Bryant is playing appears to be catching up to him.
In the last seven games, he’s averaging 36.9 minutes per game, a figure that right now would place him in the top 10 in minutes played leaguewide.
This is also a player who entered the season with more than 54,000 total minutes (playoffs and regular season) on his legs, and these weren’t easy minutes, either. They were minutes when he was carrying a heavy load on both ends of the court.
But there was an odd irony to Bryant’s struggles amid illness Friday, to his admitting his mortality after arguably the worst shooting night in the career.
Because on the other end, there was 38-year-old Tim Duncan scoring his 25,000th career point, reliably posting another double-double (13 points and 11 rebounds).
The Spurs have tried to limit the regular-season minutes of their star forward for years now, preferring to use him more in the playoffs. Judging from his consistency, it has clearly paid off.
But all told, Duncan has played nearly 1,800 fewer total minutes than Bryant, even though Duncan has played in 21 more total games.
Consider that gap.
Then consider if it was ever realistic to think Bryant could keep up his torrid scoring pace for all that long anyway, especially at his age, with his injury history, with his mileage, and with a minute load that had already crossed the line into excessive.
A night like Friday was bound to happen.
It was a night that reminded him what he’s facing at this age with what he’s already gone through.
It was a night that reminded him his body couldn’t respond as before.
All that made him finally admit his own mortality.
The question now is where he goes from here.