by Russ Bengtson
Kobe Bryant extends his right hand in greeting, , you reach out your own, and before you get there, you hesitate.
Whoa. Hold on. Just look at that thing for a second. The fractured right ring finger swollen, wrapped from tip to palm in black tape, the pinkie stiffly extended. In medical terms, it’s totally fucked up. You take it gently and think, “He hit a game-winning shot less than 24 hours ago with this?”
True story. Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks, who withstood a misfired Kobe turnaround at the end of regulation only to go down on the same exact shot at the end of overtime. “I have to remind myself sometimes, like throughout the game, shots might go short because I got the old grip that I’m used to shootin’ with,” he says nonchalantly. “So, a couple times muscle memory will go back to the old way.” Right. Nothing to it. If my hand was that messed up? This story would have been written by somebody else. Less than two weeks later, he buries another game-winner, this time against the Sacramento Kings, this at the end of a game he plays primarily using his left hand.
But that’s just the way Kobe Bryant is, how he’s wired. He’s been the ultimate basketball machine, forcing himself to perform through injury, through literal trial and tribulation. And every year he adds something new. The best player in the game still looks for an edge anywhere he can, right down to obsessively working with Nike designers to shave millimeters and grams off his signature shoes. And he’s constantly re-engineering his game, not waiting for age to slow him down, for gravity to catch up. He’s only 31, but he got old young.
“He’s still able to go out and play at a high level and do things athletically that he could do when he was young, but it’s almost like he knows to pick and choose his spots,” says Grant Hill. “It’s not like he’s trying to come down and beat you every time. He’s beatin’ you more now with his mind.”
At this stage in his game, Kobe is straight-up Training Day—he’s surgical with this bitch. When he wanted to get stronger, he hired Tim Grover to be his personal trainer. When he wanted to get better in the post, he went and saw Hakeem Olajuwon. Kobe’s arrogance may still be unmatched, but it’s balanced with a certain humility—he understands that there are others he can learn from.
SLAM: I’m sure you remember that fable, the ant and the grasshopper. Middle of summer and the grasshopper’s just chillin’ while the ant’s piling stuff up for winter. In the League today and especially from your Draft class, you’re one of very few ants with a lot of grasshoppers. Do you watch what’s happening with AI, or with Steph, or with Toine? Does that validate your process?
KOBE: It validates my process for me. This is what’s worked well for me. You know, it’s—I take a lot of pride in the longevity that I’ve had. Because I’ve seen a lot of great players hit that really hot mark. And I just kind of hover around, hover around, a decade goes by and I’m still here. So I take a lot of pride in being able to do what I do at this level for so many years.
SLAM: I talked to Grant Hill about getting older and playing as you’re older, and he talked about how the game slows down, and it gets simpler. Has that been the case for you?
KOBE: I don’t know if it’s slowed down any more. I think I understand my game more. I know what I want to do, I know what I do great, I know what I do well, you know what I mean? I know exactly where I want to go and what to do, and how teams play me, because I’ve seen them so many times now. So I think that’s what happens, for me anyway. I have a better understanding of what I like to do.
SLAM: What do you take from that, is it a matter of refinement every year?
KOBE: Yeah, it’s a matter of wanting to figure things out, it’s a matter of experience. But there’s players who play for years and years and years and still don’t figure that out—it’s a process that you have to kind of go through yourself and want to figure that stuff out. When I first came into the League, I could post, I could play on the perimeter, I could shoot threes, I could definitely wind up doing everything all over the place. So it’s about fine-tuning things, sharpening up a little bit, figuring out exactly how you want to play, and then everything else kind of takes care of itself.
SLAM: Another thing that’s struck me is that you’re willing to give credit to those who came before and seek out help from those guys. Is there anyone on that level whom you haven’t had a chance to speak to yet?
KOBE: Honestly, no. Because I’ve been very fortunate to be able to get through with a phone call to just about anybody. The one person I’ve never ever met is Larry Bird, I’ve just never met him. We’ve never crossed paths for anything. But I’ve been very fortunate, I can pick up the phone and call just about anybody. And they’ve all been very gracious.
SLAM: Who was the first guy you talked to?
KOBE: Um…probably MJ. Probably MJ. He helped me out when I was younger as well. I spoke with—sh, if I went down the list of all the players I spoke with. Jerry West, he’s an easy one, I’ve talked with him many times, Oscar Robertson, I spoke to him, Hakeem Olajuwon, I’ve spoken to him, Jordan, I’ve spoken to him, Clyde Drexler. The list of guards right there, that’s some of the all-time great guards to play, and in my opinion the best post player of all time in Hakeem.
SLAM: Was there any one particular lesson or piece of advice from anyone that seemed totally out of left field that wound up working out?
KOBE: No, not really. I’ve always gone in expecting the unexpected. So when they tell me things: Oh, OK, that makes sense. I could see how you would want to use it that way, looking at your body and your frame and what you like to do. So now it’s, OK, how do I use that for what I got? How does that make sense for me, how can I incorporate that, if at all? So I just kind of take it and, it’s kind of like, Oh, OK, I see.
SLAM: Is that the sort of thing you’re starting to see from the other side, where young players come up to you? “Kobe, can you tell me this, this or this?” How much are you willing to share when someone asks you?
KOBE: I share it. Because it’s not what you share, it’s at the end of the day you still have to try and perfect that. Because I went to spend time with Hakeem, but that would have been worth nothin’ if once I left there, I left it there. You know what I mean? So I had to do my work as he did his to get to where he was.
SLAM: You’re in—I think it’s your ninth season—with Phil, which was as long as he was in Chicago. Are you still learning things from him every day?
KOBE: Ummm…no, not really. Not really. We’ve been together for a long time, so much so that we’re virtually on the same page. Phil’s biggest thing is, his advantage is, consistency in what he teaches. He’s not all over the place. Coaches are all constantly trying to think of motivation techniques and all sorts of stuff. He doesn’t stress out about that. He just sticks to the script, and I think that’s why he’s been such a great coach for so long, he doesn’t divvy from that. He teaches you the game the way he wants it to be played. He’s not coaching your personality, he’s not trying to change you as a person. He just wants you as you are, as you develop, however you choose to develop as a person, wants you to fit into the continuity of the offense. [dusts off hands] That’s it. And I think that’s what’s genius about him.
SLAM: How has that relationship changed?
KOBE: Well, I just think the dynamics of our team has changed. So as a result, our team—our relationship has changed. He no longer has to cater to Shaq. You know what I mean? So he can come to me, and talk to me, and have a close relationship with me, and I think that’s made a big difference.
SLAM: I wanted to ask you about statistics. As a guy who is pretty thorough in his knowledge of his own game…
KOBE: [already shaking his head no] At all.
SLAM: …do you look at like, percentages of how many times you’re in the post or…
KOBE: At all. At all. At all. I look at—and a lot of it has to do with growing up under Phil’s system—I look at the momentums of the game, and how you affect the game. Statistics can’t tell you that, can’t teach you how to feel a game. Statistics are just for fantasy buffs or something, I don’t know.
SLAM: When you thought about going into the post more this season, was that something you talked to Pau about, or to Drew?
KOBE: Not at all.
SLAM: Did that really change the whole look?
KOBE: Not at all. Not at all. The offense is so versatile. It’s not like other offenses where you have to call sets, this person goes into the post, that person goes into the post. It’s such a versatile and flexible offense that there’s adjustments for everything. Anybody can go into the post and then everybody fills in the spots behind that, so it’s so easy, playing in the system gives me so much more freedom to be able to do what I need to do.
There’s an anecdote in Chris Ballard’s excellent The Art of a Beautiful Game where a young Kobe Bryant approaches then-Lakers coach Del Harris. He tells Harris that he can post up anyone who happens to be guarding him, so why not let him go into the paint and do it? Harris, taken aback, informs Kobe that they have this guy named Shaquille O’Neal who’s also quite adept at that, and they should probably keep things running the way they are.
Has Kobe really changed? His mindset hasn’t. Kobe outlasted Shaq, he outlasted Harris and now he’s doing exactly what he wanted to do in the first place. In the end, he got his way. He always does.
But at the same time, it’s all about the work. Tim Duncan gets all the props for the fundamentals, but the fundamentals are pretty much all he has. Kobe’s different. He could have easily relied on his athleticism early and his shot late, retiring to the perimeter like a certain other former Slam Dunk champion. He didn’t. Instead he submerged himself fully in the game.
“It’s what sets him apart,” says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “There are a lot of people with a lot of abilities, both physical and intrinsic basketball abilities, intelligent people, but he has what Michael had. And that’s not just an unbelievably competitive desire, but a real feel for the game, to know what has to be done at what point in the game. When he’s gotta insert himself into the mix, whether it might be an offensive rebound, a steal, a three-pointer—whatever it takes. He seems to understand what the game demands, and there are very, very few people in the League who can do that, and he does it better than anyone.”
So far, so good. He’s played more than 35,000 minutes, scored more than 24,000 points, chasing down the legends. He’s passed Patrick Ewing on the total points list at the time of this writing, Jerry West at the time of your reading. He’ll be top 10 by the end of the year. And if those four titles become five, and five become six, who knows? Meanwhile, the best player in the game is still having fun.
SLAM: Did you have an understanding of what this would all be like when you first came into the League?
KOBE: Mm-mm. No. Not at all.
SLAM: What’s been the biggest shift for you?
KOBE: It’s funny because the more years I spent in the League, like to where I am now, it just feels like I’m back in high school. Because in high school it’s a similar situation, you just have to try to get your team to the state championship. Same responsibilities, same leadership role. It’s just playing with insanely more talented players and competition. Everything else is the same.