Kobe Bryant’s 34th birthday a reminder of how he’s evolved

This day marks a time of relaxation for Kobe Bryant.

It’s rare for him to do that. He’s used to sleeping three to four hours per night. Even when the NBA season ended, Bryant immediately began preparing for the London Olympics. After earning his second gold medal, he then went on a week-long trip to China to promote his Nike shoes and hold clinics.

After such a busy schedule, Bryant mentioned on his Facebook page that he’s taking some time off. He’s planning to help his 9-year-old daughter, Natalia, learn how to surf this week by just “supervising.” When he’s done doing that, Bryant says he’ll lay out by the beach. And with an impeccable sense of timing, Bryant also celebrates his 34th birthday Thursday.

That, of course, yields inevitable conversation about his basketball age. Bryant, entering his 17th season, has spent half of his life playing pro ball. His résumé is beyond reproach: five NBA championships, two Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP, four All-Star game MVPs and a fifth-place spot on the league’s all-time scoring list. But Bryant’s birthday also brings to mind just how he’s evolved his game, so that even as his NBA career is winding down, he’s still playing at a relatively elite level.


Some of the changes seem as basic as his diet. Bryant revealed in a recent post on iVillage that the biggest struggle in losing 16 pounds before the Olympics involved cutting back on sugar cookies. In fact, Bryant mentioned recently that he often ate junk food early in his career, including late-night cravings for In-N-Out burgers. Bryant even says he ate pepperoni pizza prior to scoring a career-high 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006 against the Toronto Raptors. Lately, though, Bryant has leaned on vegetables, fruits and lean meats while also learning how to adjust to eating smaller meals every few hours.

Moving forward, Bryant also recognizes that it’s not healthy for him to continue carrying the brunt of the Lakers offense.

With Steve Nash’s arrival, Bryant won’t have to assume primary ballhandling duties. That means Bryant won’t have to work as hard generating open looks. He can move more off the ball and penetrate the wing. Nash will also find better ways to find cracks in the defense and set Bryant up much better than Derek Fisher, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake ever could. Although his shooting percentage was erratic, Bryant’s stint at the London Games provided a glimpse of how he could remain a scoring threat while still letting LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthonyhandle the primary scoring duties and allowing Chris Paul to take care of the ballhandling and passing.

That wasn’t the reality for the Lakers last season.

Then, Bryant’s 35.67% usage rate nearly mirrored his league-leading 38.74% clip during the 2005-06 season. He did this partly out of necessity since the Lakers lacked enough bench support and outside shooters. Bryant did this partly out of pride since he wanted to prove that an innovative procedure in Germany on his surgically repaired right knee would help him find the fountain of youth. He also did this partly out of stubbornness, since the Lakers still had a formidable front line in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that wasn’t always utilized correctly. Even if he finished as the second-leading scorer behind Kevin Durant, Bryant’s 43% mark from the field represented his lowest shooting percentage since his second NBA season in the 1997-98 campaign.

“Old age,” Bryant explained sarcastically a few months ago as the reason for his shooting issues.

Old age or not, such struggles are relative to how he’s still managed to stay at an elite level. He’s outlasted his contemporaries, including Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. Bryant’s somehow played through an array of damaged body parts in recent seasons, which have included the right knee, a sprained left ankle, a torn ligament in his right wrist, post-concussion symptoms and a fractured right index finger. James, Durant and Chris Paul may be faster and even better than Bryant at this point, but he’s adjusted enough to stay within striking distance.

Bryant took post lessons from Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon three years ago so he could generate more points in the post. When he fractured his index finger, Bryant consulted with assistant coach Chuck Person to fix his shot so that the pressure transferred from his index finger to his palm and thumb. After suffering a concussion last season, Bryant tried various versions of a plastic mask so he received enough protection without significantly altering his vision. He even stayed in dark rooms to minimize the headaches.

Even if his last two NBA playoff appearances have fallen short, Bryant still has enough time to reach further greatness. He’s one ring away from tying Michael Jordan. An enhanced supporting cast with Nash and Dwight Howard could even propel him to seven rings once his contract expires after the 2013-14 season. And perhaps Bryant could push beyond that, since presumably he’ll feel healthier with a strong enough team to win more titles.

Regardless, Bryant’s 27.9 points per game average last season nearly mirrors or exceeds the marks of other elite players at age 34, including Jordan (28.7 points), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.9 points), Jerry West (22.8 points) and Larry Bird (19.4 points). Bryant’s still at that level even though his career minutes (42,377) exceed that of Jordan (41,011), West (36,571) and Bird (34,442) because he entered the NBA out of high school and hasn’t suffered major injuries.

Who knows if Bryant’s thinking about all this on his birthday. It is a rare time when he can finally stop thinking about basketball. Considering his insatiable competitiveness, it’s plausible that his mind’s drifting there as he’s hanging out by the beach and watching his daughter surf. He could also see in the near distance this all ending soon, since he’s open to retiring once his contract ends, leaving the game on top.

Regardless, Bryant’s gone through great lengths to ensure this longevity. And in his mind, Bryant isn’t done navigating that challenge.


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