When Kobe Bryant worked out for the Lakers as a high school graduate in 1996, he stunned them with his leaping ability and raw basketball talent that few 17-year-olds had ever possessed. Lakers luminary Jerry West, the team’s executive vice president at the time, said it was the greatest workout he had ever witnessed.
Thirteen years and 1,118 NBA games later, Bryant is still one of the best basketball players in the world, but there’s a lingering question planted in the backdrop as the Lakers begin the NBA Finals tonight against the Orlando Magic: How much longer can their 11-time All-Star produce eye-catching statistics before age and gravity tap him on the shoulder?
The Lakers and their failure to win a championship since 2002 is only one reason their fan base might be feeling a bit edgy. There’s also a sense of urgency because the window for Bryant’s career is only a handful of years from sliding shut.
Think of Bryant, who will be 31 in August, as a Ferrari with a well-tested odometer. Consider that he has already played 340 more NBA games than Michael Jordan when the Chicago Bulls’ star was the same age, a 44% increase that can be traced to several long Lakers playoff runs early in Bryant’s career and his entrance into the NBA immediately after high school. (Jordan waited until after his junior year at the University of North Carolina.)
Bryant continues to post numbers that any fresh-faced 23-year-old would giddily embrace, but, as TV analyst Mark Jackson observed on a recent play where Bryant scored on a routine layup instead of dunking the ball with authority: “Father Time is undefeated.”
Bryant joked earlier in the season that he hit old-man status by turning 30, and, indeed, most basketball players are fortunate to still be in the league by their early 30s.
Sticking with his long-standing aura of invincibility, Bryant declined to open up on how his age might drive him in helping the Lakers win their 15th NBA championship.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said flatly. “The urgency is there just because it’s there.”
Bryant is averaging 29.6 points a game in the playoffs, second this spring only to the Cleveland Cavaliers 24-year-old forward LeBron James, who averaged 35.3 points before his one-man show ended last week in the Eastern Conference finals against Orlando.
Bryant was once the West Coast version of James, trying to push the Lakers to success by himself after Shaquille O’Neal was traded in 2004.
Only in the last two seasons have the Lakers become championship caliber again after acquiring All-Star forward Pau Gasol from Memphis and receiving an infusion of youth from 21-year-old 7-footer Andrew Bynum, who is still learning on the job.
It’s enough surrounding talent to allow Bryant to excel for several more years, said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, a 13-year NBA veteran who has played 10 seasons with Bryant, more than any other teammate.
“You look at the cumulative age of our team and the potential of so many guys, and we feel like it will be the beginning of something special,” Fisher said.
At the same time, Fisher, 34, acknowledged that he and Bryant were “closer to the back than the front” of their careers.
“So there’s definitely more of a sense of urgency to have results and not miss out on the end result after a whole season,” Fisher said. “That’s just not acceptable. I know that’s where he is and I can’t blame him.”
Bryant hates to reveal any shortcomings, but he recently acknowledged being fatigued after a playoff game in Denver, a surprising disclosure from a player who thrives on thoroughly dominating an opponent while showing no vulnerability. Bryant even needed an IV after that Denver game, the altitude and the long season catching up to him in one sweeping gesture after he scored 41 points in 41 minutes.
Not only has he played all 82 regular-season games and 18 playoff games since this NBA season began last October, but he had practically no time off last summer because of his commitment to play for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics, where the team won the gold medal.
Signs of fatigue for Bryant aren’t entirely startling for a player who has logged 41,200 minutes as an NBA player.
“That’s a lot of mileage,” said Lakers forward Luke Walton, who has played his entire six-year career with Bryant. “I tell people the NBA is like aging in dog years. You could be 28 years old, but if you’ve played 10 years in the league, your body’s a lot more worn and torn than a 28-year-old that went to college for a few years and has only had four or five years in the league.
“For Kobe to play that many more games than Jordan and being in the playoffs every year, that’s an impressive stat.”
Bryant is appearing in his sixth NBA Finals and pursuing his fourth championship, which, if successful, would put him on par with former teammate O’Neal but still behind Magic Johnson, who won five, and Jordan, who won six.
The Lakers have lost their last two trips to the NBA Finals -- a humbling loss to Detroit in 2004 and an embarrassing defeat last year to their hated longtime rivals, the Boston Celtics.
The final game they played last June was a 131-92 loss, the second-largest defeat in Finals history.
Bryant spoke in tightly clipped sentences after that game, the frustration evident in his tone and posture.
This time around, the Lakers are favored to beat Orlando, a team that can score in a variety of ways but doesn’t have any championship experience among its top players.
A victory parade this month would “probably” mean more to Bryant than the three titles the Lakers had earlier this decade, he said, particularly since the team hasn’t won since 2002.
“We’re determined to try to come up with a better result,” he said. “The last few times we’ve been there, it’s been the short end of the stick. Hopefully this time around will be better.”