What Principles Matter Most For Kobe Bryant?

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How much does he value the simple act of playing? At that post-Cavs press conference, the well-honed image of a hardened basketball killer melted, as it has fairly frequently over the last year or two. At a genetic level Kobe’s identity has been fused with with the game for as long as he can remember. Not just the winning, or the competition, but the art of it. That the Lakers are a smoldering tire fire actually makes identifying that love easier.

“It would be a little different if we were contending for a championship. I’d be my same, moody self. But right now, I tend to have a little more perspective knowing I really won’t get a chance to play for much longer,” he said. “You want to enjoy it.”

How much does he value the process? Bryant is as intellectually curious an athlete as you’ll find. All that talk of solving puzzles about his body, finding ways to dominate on the floor with diminished physical capacity, of doing things people don’t think are possible? It’s not b.s.. But does he value it more than the sacrifice rehab and a 20th summer of preparation demands on his body? His family?

What about one last opportunity to leave the game on his own terms, upright, and playing?

How much does he value next year’s $25 million salary? Asked about his basketball future by Bill Plaschke of the LA Times, Kobe was blunt. “I don’t care about the money. If I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t.”

This, of course, isn’t entirely true. Nobody who cares at all about money doesn’t care about $25 million dollars. But does he care about it more than all the other aforementioned principles? Or the most important one — that he won’t take the floor if he can’t play at the standard he’s set for himself? At the risk of sounding like The World’s Most Naive Sportswriter, I don’t think he’d trade that principle, even for $25 mil.

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Ironically, this could be the second time a season-ending injury has extended Bryant’s career. It’s certainly possible that had he not torn his Achilles, Bryant would have walked away after 2013-14. But given his level of play at the point of the tear, there was no way he was going to let that be the end. The injury begat the rehab, which begat the extension, and here we are. Had Kobe continued limping through his age-36 season, playing two games, sitting two more, fighting old injuries and new, it’s reasonable to ask if the totality would have met his standard.

Now there are just enough questions to fuel one more run. What if he tries a few different techniques this offseason? What if the Lakers can acquire a player or two who might more effectively lighten his burden. What if Byron Scott enters next season choosing not to ride Kobe like a pony at cut-rate petting zoo?

This season’s experiment was botched from the start, then rendered incomplete. In theory, at least, better tactics next year might yield better results, giving Kobe the farewell tour he deserves.

Bringing us back to that skill of self-assessment, and brutal honesty.

One argument says shutting Kobe down now allows him to preserve what’s left and come back even more prepared, physically, with a better plan to keep him on the court once the season starts. Unless his goal is to pitch for the Dodgers, a rotator cuff injury isn’t under normal circumstances considered a career-altering injury. He’ll be that much further away from the Achilles and knee injuries that ruined last season.

Except that’s all high-level wishful thinking. At Kobe’s age, he’s at a use-it-or-lose-it stage. Rest will make him feel better day-to-day, but won’t matter once he again subjects himself to the demands of NBA basketball. The injuries won’t go away, they’ll just lie dormant. The damage done to his body this year can’t be reversed, even if Scott wises up for next.

In other words, there’s a very significant chance next year will look a lot like this one. Maybe he beats the odds and writes a better ending, but there’s just as large a chance it could be worse.

Ultimately, I think the inability to finish this year means there will be a next.

But it wouldn’t shock me to be wrong.


Kobe Bryant Tears Rotator Cuff

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