Jerry West, whose silhouette is featured in the NBA’s red, white and blue logo, walked away from the Lakers and a renowned basketball career because a groin injury limited his game. At the time he eloquently said, “I’m not willing to sacrifice my standards. Perhaps I expect too much.”
The Hall of Famer was a month shy of his 36th birthday and was still averaging a very reasonable 20.3 points a game.
Four decades later and another Lakers legend is 36.
Also en route to the Hall of Fame, Kobe Bryant is continually reminded of his longevity in the game. He’s logged 54,224 minutes in the regular season and playoffs while also winning five championships over 18 years. There’s also the strain and pain of any of the 37,340 points he’s scored.
He’s already shrugged off a torn Achilles’ tendon that ended his 2012-13 season. And a broken bone in his knee that ended his 2013-14 campaign after just six games. Bryant, with two seasons left on his contract, is showing no signs of quitting even though the Lakers appear to be going nowhere.
Most believe the Lakers will miss the playoffs this season. And though Bryant is one of the oldest players in the league, the Lakers’ fortunes are heavily dependent on his play. Still, the questions that hang in the air as a new season gets underway Tuesday — when the Lakers play the Houston Rockets at Staples Center — are: How much longer can Bryant do this, and how much does he have left in the tank?
If anybody had insight, it was West, who traded for Bryant in 1996 as a Lakers executive and mentored him his first few seasons.
West was there when the 17-year-old Bryant had the most impressive pre-draft workout he’d ever seen. Even though he left the Lakers in 2000, West continued to study Bryant from afar, first as an executive for the Memphis Grizzlies and, more recently, as a consultant for the Golden State Warriors.
“I see the same skill. Physically, I don’t see the same ‘physical.’ And I think he would tell you that,” West said about Bryant. “As the season goes along, I think he’ll look at the game differently: How can I be more efficient without killing myself physically? He’ll pick his spots, I think.”
If you combine his regular-season and playoff ledgers, Bryant has already played 214 more games than Michael Jordan, and enters this season ranked 25th in most games played in league history. When Bryant debuted in the NBA, Phil Jackson — who would guide Bryant to his five titles — was coaching in Chicago and Clippers forward Blake Griffin was in the second grade.
After numerous interviews with coaches and NBA personnel, very few said they would bet against Bryant’s returning close to his superstar form.
“I don’t think it’s going to be any different,” Phoenix Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He knows the game. So he knows how to bump you off and get space for his jump shot. He’s going to be one of those guys you have to deal with even at that age.”
Even if that’s the case, the Lakers are in peril of missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons, something that hasn’t happened since 1975 and 1976.
There’s no Shaquille O’Neal on this team. Or Pau Gasol. Or even Brian Shaw or Rick Fox, two of Bryant’s role-playing teammates for three championships in the early 2000s.
The Lakers just announced that 40-year-old Steve Nash will not play this season because of chronic back problems.
So that leaves Carlos Boozer, discarded a few months ago by Chicago after being benched in fourth quarters near the end of last season; Jeremy Lin, who lost his starting job in Houston and was traded to the Lakers in a salary dump; highly touted rookie Julius Randle, still adjusting to the NBA game at age 19; and a litany of journeymen back-ups including Ronnie Price (five teams in nine previous seasons) and Wayne Ellington (four teams in five previous seasons).
It’s not the kind of lineup likely to fix a team that set a franchise record by losing 55 games last season.
“His expectation level is going to have to be tempered, OK?” West said of Bryant. “For himself and for his team. …
“It’s been a remarkable run for him but it will be challenging ahead. You’re so used to winning and sometimes when you’re younger, you can will your team to win. But he’s played with an awful lot of talent. This is not the most talented Laker team we’ve seen.”
Bryant’s patience was tested last season.
Either angry at his own physical shortcomings or what he may have perceived as the lack of fire from his teammates, he arrived for the late-season team photo and barely spoke to anybody. He can be seen in the front left corner of the photo, his posture slumped, his face pulled down into a frown.
Not long after that, as the team prepared to finish the season in San Antonio, Bryant took off to France for a family trip, unbeknownst to the Lakers.
He said that day on Twitter that he was trying to forget what happened that season: “Flush it. Forget it #amnesia Next Season will be epic.”
Bryant played in six of the Lakers’ eight exhibitions, sitting out the last two to rest. He was reluctant at first to drive toward the basket, preferring to hang around the perimeter, acting very much like someone who sat out almost an entire season.
As the games melted closer toward ones that counted, Bryant started pushing the ball toward the basket, drawing 11 free throws in one game. In another, he showed the same late-game trademark fall-away shots that defined him before his Achilles’ snapped in April of last year.
He could easily be a shorter version of 36-year-old Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has strung together remarkably consistent seasons late in his career by being effective from long distance. Bryant no longer has the same elevation but he has the footwork to make his shots work, whether he’s operating in the post close to the basket or 18 feet away.
“The one thing that I’m not worried about in terms of him, in all the years that we played, especially under Phil [Jackson], we spent probably 15 or 20 minutes every single day doing the most basic fundamentals and the most basic footwork,” said Shaw, now the coach of the Denver Nuggets. “And so in terms of that area, he’s fundamentally sound. And because of that he can still get to wherever he needs to get on the floor and create the kind of space that he needs to do what he needs to do out there.”
Bryant averaged 19 points and four assists in exhibition play, though he shot only 39.6%, about six percentage points below his career regular-season accuracy.
As Bryant starts the first season of a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension, another key will be his defense, which has slipped notably over the years. Can he stay with the blur-quick and smooth-shooting 25-year-olds?
“I don’t know that Kobe needs that much work on anything,” said former TNT analyst Steve Kerr, now in his first season as Golden State’s coach. “He’s done this for so long and he’s so good, so talented. His rhythm will come at both ends of the floor pretty quickly.”
Bryant has answered all the poking and prodding from reporters with bemused looks and a steady string of “I feel fine” quotes. He chided the media earlier this month for daily check-under-the-hood questions about his health, saying they must be “rusty” from a long off-season.
It would be rare for Bryant to doubt himself. He refuses to acknowledge any loss of power, any erosion of athleticism in a body that has played more than 2 1/2 extra NBA seasons in playoff games alone.
“I’ve been playing years that probably should not have been. Nineteen years is a very, very long time,” Bryant said. “It’s tough to look around at any industry at anybody that’s been doing anything for 19 years at a remotely high level.
“Going back to 15 years old, 14 years old, playing all those AAU games on concrete and all this other stuff. Five games in one day. It’s been a hell of a journey.”
Perhaps ABC/ESPN analyst and former Warriors coach Mark Jackson said it best.
“I think he’s going to be aggressive. I think he’s going to be in attack mode. I think he’s going to score the basketball,” Jackson said. “But I think that’s a team that’s going to struggle.”
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.