A calming presence loomed around Kobe Bryant as he walked around the Lakers’ practice court, filming endless promotional spots and answering endless questions amid a swarm of people commanding his attention and time.
But as the Lakers’ 2014-15 season officially started with the team’s media day on Monday at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo, the pleasant and smiling exterior masked the more conflicted emotions Bryant felt inside. Bryant remains only a season removed from when he played only six games because of injuries to his left Achilles tendon and left knee, a stretch that coincided with the Lakers finishing with their worst record in L.A. franchise history. Hence, why Bryant had plenty on his mind.
“It’s a mixture of excitement, it’s a mixture of a little nervousness, it’s a mixture of rage,” Bryant said. “It’s a mixture of a lot of things. I’m trying to see if I can prove to myself that I can be myself. All those words and the doubts adds fuel to that.”
Plenty of doubts persist for various reasons. The Lakers missed out on LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony this summer. They lost Pau Gasol. The Lakers’ current roster features several role players whose potential appears unclear. And of course, questions loom on whether the 36-year-old Bryant and 40-year-old Steve Nash can stay healthy after playing only a combined 21 games.
Yet, the Lakers maintain optimism about Bryant, mindful of his five NBA championships and countless resume toward overcoming injuries. The reasons also include the Lakers’ brass viewing Bryant play in a five-on-five scrimmage last week at the team’s practice facility.
“He’s just Kobe,” Lakers rookie forward Julius Randle said. “It looks like he hasn’t lost a step.”
So much that Lakers coach Byron Scott gushed about Bryant’s movement, shooting accuracy, post-up moves, rebounding and passing. Scott even said, “I saw enough” in Bryant’s explosiveness even if he did not dunk.
Scott may not have provided much clarity on many minutes Bryant will play after averaging 38 minutes the previous two seasons prior to his Achilles injury on April, 2013. Or whether Bryant will sit on the second night of back-to-back games. But Scott still offered a bold prediction on how Bryant will play.
“I expect him to play 82 games and to play well,” Scott said. “He’s a guy who’s still going to average 23-24 points per game. The biggest thing is for him to stay healthy and keeping his minutes to a minimum where he can play those 82 games.”
Bryant downplayed his likely minute restriction, saying, “I don’t see it being much of an issue.” Bryant hardly flinched on Scott’s optimistic assessment on his upcoming play.
“Whether I am or not, it doesn’t matter,” Bryant said. “It’s where we go as a squad. Offensively we’re going to be fine no matter what, it’s defense and rebounding that we need to focus on. I’m looking forward to seeing how I move my feet defensively and staying in front of guys and chasing guys off of picks, things like that.”
The Lakers need plenty of help, finishing last season at the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive statistical category.
“Our primary focus is to be great defensively and that involved taking that challenge every single night and trying to get better at it every single night,” Bryant said. “Personally, really, that’s really the biggest challenge because offensively I can always dictate what I’m going to do, defensively it’s reacting to things. That’s a challenge that I really haven’t had to deal with this summer, yet so I’m looking forward to seeing how I do.”
Bryant sounded more sentimental about 40-year-old New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter recently ending his last game at Yankee Stadium with a game-winning single against the Baltimore Orioles.
“The most touching moment for me was watching him walk off the field and walk through the tunnel and head back to the locker room,” Bryant said. “That’s the most touching part because it’s the last time time it’s going to happen and you put yourself in that position and imagine what that would feel like. Even though technically the game-winning single seemed to be the most touching thing, for me it was the quiet moment where he was walking off the field that was most moving.”
Will Bryant offer such sentimental memories with two years left on his contract? Who knows. But Bryant sounded eager toward writing that comeback story.
“The size of the challenge that’s ahead of me has forced me to focus in more than I ever have,” said Bryant, who reported losing 10-12 pounds this summer. “That’s a 360 degree thing, it’s nutrition, training and everything. To play at this age with all the injuries you have to have that focus.”