HONOLULU -- It felt beautiful, Kobe Bryant said, the cyclical nature of returning to the scene of his first NBA training camp in 1996 and, nearly two decades later, quite possibly his last.
“It’s a little strange,” the Los Angeles Lakers star guard said with a smile Tuesday after the team opened camp at University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Stan Sheriff Center, “because I remember [it] like it was yesterday and being here and all of my teammates that were here before that are now either retired or coaching [or on TV].”
In that first training camp, Bryant was limited after having broken his left wrist during a pickup game in Venice Beach weeks earlier.
Now, the Lakers' star is limited for multiple reasons, such as his age, the total mileage on his body and the injuries that have ended each of his past three seasons. Tuesday's session, in fact, marked his first practice in nearly nine months since a season-ending shoulder injury.
The 37-year-old Bryant said he “felt good” and that he’s in great condition.
“I could run all day,” he said.
Lakers coach Byron Scott agreed.
“He looked great,” Scott said. “I told him I’m not surprised, but I’m surprised on how great his conditioning was. He was ahead of the pack on a bunch of things that we did this morning.”
But Bryant won’t be participating in every minute of every practice. And when the team holds two sessions in one day, Bryant is expected to take part in only one of them.
For him and the Lakers, it’s about being smart.
“You don’t push it too much,” Bryant said. “You do enough running to get a sweat in, get a nice push, get your legs activated a little bit. Truthfully my conditioning is at a high level already. There’s no need to push that or you don’t want to beat up the joints, beat up the ligaments any more than you have to. It’s more so getting some game activation, the drills that we do, contact drills, timing, things like that, because I haven’t done that in a long time.”
Said Scott: “Each practice we’ll ramp it up a little bit more. We don’t want to get crazy. I thought [Tuesday] was a great start. I thought he was fantastic in our first drill and he was great in our shell drills -- pretty much everything that we did. But we wanted to keep it at a minimum, so if we went 20 minutes on one thing, we wanted to keep him at 15. We’ll keep monitoring that as we go along this week.”
Their plan this week is also part of a grander scheme that both the Lakers and Bryant hope will help preserve him for his 20th NBA campaign. Bryant would like to participate in each of the team’s eight preseason games, including their two here against the Utah Jazz on Sunday and Wednesday. But he’ll be limited, as he’s expected to be throughout the season.
Bryant has to strike a balance, though. On one hand, he wants to put on an offensive show. On the other, he must listen to his body, which has failed him each of the past three seasons, with shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries cutting each campaign short.
“When I’m out there and I’m playing, I give 110 percent,” Bryant said. “That’s what you have to do. Whether it’s 15 minutes, 20 minutes or it’s 10 minutes. It’s my job to approach it with playoff intensity and playoff focus. And if I can go, I will definitely play. I’m sure we’ll limit minutes and things of that nature. But it’s definitely my responsibility to step out there and play.”
With all the miles on his body, and the severity of his injuries recently, can Bryant reasonably be expected to play all 82 regular-season games after playing just 41 games in the past two seasons? It’s unclear. Prior to 2013-14, Bryant had never missed 20 or more games in a single season. Only two players have ever played in 60 or more games in their 20th season or beyond (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish both played in 74 games), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“It’s my job to train to be prepared for all 82,” Bryant said. “And then whether you want to scale back or I can’t play, we’ll figure it out when the time comes. It’s my job to be physically ready to play all 82. That’s always the goal.”
Bryant said he’s hopeful that however many minutes he plays -- Scott has said there will be a hard cap -- he won’t need to carry a heavy load because he can rely on some of the team’s younger players.
“All minutes definitely aren’t created equal,” Bryant said. “I think we’ve got some guys here this year that can really take a lot of load off, man. D’Angelo [Russell] and [Jordan] Clarkson and their ability to handle and create and make plays, and Julius [Randle] making plays. The minutes that I do play won’t be as heavy of minutes as they have been in the past.”
Scott is also being tentative with Bryant because Scott still feels some measure of guilt for the heavy minutes Bryant played early on last season, which led to Bryant becoming fatigued and having to miss several games before suffering his injury, a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
“I still think about it,” Scott said. “You try to forget about it as much as possible, because last year is last year, this is a new year and you try to move on. But it creeps into your mind every now and then. I think when it creeps into my mind is when I tell myself, 'OK, I’m not going to make that same mistake this year.' That’s the biggest thing that I think about.
“Like I said, with KB, it’s really listening to him, because he knows his body so much better than anybody else and he knows what he can tolerate and what he can’t. Mentally, we know that he’s probably the toughest guy in this league. He’ll play through everything, but I don’t want him to have to play through anything. I want him to play hopefully relatively injury-free and pain-free where he can have a fun year this year.”
Bryant said he doesn’t dwell on last season or the thought that he played too many minutes.
“To me it’s not much of a big deal, honestly,” he said. “Last year [I] looked at minutes that I played [and] still felt pretty good and then none of us knew I was playing with a torn shoulder all season long. But the legs felt fine. When you look at the minutes, the first thing that you’ve got to look at is the legs.”
He also said he doesn’t feel tentative about his shoulder.
“It’s a little easier to get through, honestly,” he said. “The truth is, even with a completely torn shoulder I was playing and shooting, and it felt strong still. Now that it’s fixed up, [it] should be fine. Legs are different. Everything you do on the court centers around legs. You can’t hide that stuff, you know what I mean. It’s a lot easier than dealing with the lower-leg injuries.”
In terms of staying healthy this season, Bryant is just hoping for luck.
“You just knock on wood and hope you don’t have a serious injury,” Bryant said. “The injuries I’ve had the last three years have been serious injuries. It’s not a thing where you have sore muscles or little things like that -- [just] serious injuries that are serious injuries. You just got to hope you don’t have one of those.”
Another injury could mark a sour end to a Hall of Fame career, which is the last thing Bryant and the Lakers want.
“If this is indeed his last year, I want him to go out standing,” Scott said. “I want him to go out his way. I don’t want him to be injured.”