CHICAGO – Zero. Less than zero even, if that’s possible.
Kobe Bryant didn’t delve into negative numbers Monday night in a hallway at United Center, but that’s the level of doubt he felt about his next return from injury. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar, out since Dec. 17 with a fracture in his left knee, didn’t hedge or blink when asked about the likelihood that he’ll come back as the player he was before.
Not just before this latest setback but before the left Achilles-tendon blowout he suffered in April, cutting short his 2012-13 season.
“Zero. Zero,” Bryant said, repeating for emphasis his doubt about his playing future and the quality of his game when he gets there. “There was [doubt] before I came back the first time, because I didn’t know how my Achilles was going to respond to playing, to changing directions. The game in Memphis, I felt I had a pretty good feel for it. I felt like I was getting back to doing what I normally could do.
“So I feel pretty confident about it.”
Bryant fast-tracked his return from the Achilles injury, missing the first six weeks of 2013-14 rather than several months. He came back Dec. 8 against Toronto and lasted six games. Bryant scored 20 points three times and had his minutes up to 32 per night when his left knee gave out.
The timetable now is for Bryant, 35, to be examined again after the Lakers’ current seven-game “Grammy” trip. While some — including Lakers legend Magic Johnson — have suggested Bryant sit out the balance of the season for either his own recovery or to boost the team’s lottery odds, Bryant made it sound like a February return, before or after All-Star weekend, is inevitable.
This media opportunity, coming in Derrick Rose‘s gym, meant he was asked about the Bulls’ MVP, who also is sidelined by his second serious injury in two years (and isn’t expected back till October). While Bryant’s response dealt with Rose, it surely applied to him as well, a nod to the drive and will he long has been known for and the younger Rose still is developing.
“Really there’s not too much you can do about it,” Bryant said. “It’s unfortunate, but you have two options. One is to lay down. The second is get up and get to work. I think the second one is more appealing [to Rose] for sure.”
Bryant touched on a number of things in his state-of-the-Mamba address, including the Lakers’ other injuries, their midseason status (16-25 prior to tipoff) and the state of the league. Among the topics:
- He made it abundantly clear that he won’t be joining Team USA in the 2016 Olympics, but teased that he’d be an eager spectator to watch Lakers teammate Pau Gasol play for Spain again.
- The most noticeable change in NBA basketball since his arrival in 1996? “It’s more of a finesse game. It’s more small ball. Which, personally, I don’t really care much for,” Bryant said. Like so many from the old-school – even at 35, Bryant qualifies – he is befuddled at the soft stuff now that passes for physical play. “Makes me nauseous,” he said. “You can’t touch a guy.”
- The rule against hand-checking has made it easier for players to shine offensively, Bryant said. “Nowadays, anybody can get out there and get to the basket – you can’t touch ‘em,” he said. “Back then, if you have guys putting their hands on you, you have to have the skills to be able to go both ways, change directions, post up and have that mid-range game, because you didn’t want to go all the way to the basket because you’d get knocked [down].”
- He’s no fan of the NBA’s one-and-done arrangement with NCAA basketball, which no longer permits players such as Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James to turn pro immediately after high school. “I think it worked out pretty well for all three of us,” Bryant said. “The system really isn’t teaching players anything when you go to college. … I’m always a firm believer in us being able to make our own decision.”
Bryant spoke in a hallway adorned with a floor-to-ceiling Michael Jordan photo, in an arena that Jordan and the Bulls’ championship teams of the 1990s built, with Jordan’s bronze likeness outside, the spark for what has become a sports statue craze across America. Many see him as Jordan’s successor, bracketed between Grant Hill‘s injury-derailed superstardom and what still is James at full strength, yet the most Michael-like of them all.
The NBA timeline has pulsed with an informal passing-of-the-torch from Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson to Julius Erving, to Larry Bird and Johnson, to Jordan, Bryant, James and beyond.
Asked about that, Bryant said he saw time’s passage and the game’s history differently.
“I’ve never looked at is as torches being passed,” he said. “As a kid growing up, I always looked at it as these athletes representing different things. So what Magic represented to the game, what Bird represented to the game, was different from what Michael represents.
“It’s not the same torch. They’re picking up their own thing and carrying their own generation.”