Underneath his stoic demeanor, Kobe Bryant’s words conveyed a pure giddiness for a craft he has obsessively perfected.
Bryant’s mission statement through 19 seasons involves competing for NBA championships in June, making the Lakers’ season opener on Tuesday against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center just “one step of a long journey.” But for a player who literally could not take any steps as he stayed sidelined for all but six games last season, Bryant sounded poetic about just playing again. He gushed about “the sound of the ball, the squeak of the sneakers and the smell of the leather.”
“I’m not going to go over the top and say I’m overjoyed by it,” Bryant said on Monday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. “But I’m happy to be out there and happy to be playing. It’s about finding a balance and trying to keep poised and calm without getting too over the top.”
That fine-line approach also captures how Bryant hopes to play in the 2014-15 season.
Bryant and Scott have remained pleased with how played through six games of exhibition play where he averaged 19 points on 38.47 percent shooting and four assists in 26.7 minutes. Although Bryant’s shooting accuracy could improve, his aggressiveness and rhythm increased throughout training camp. Bryant looked comfortable operating in the post. And he increased his stamina, playing 32-34 minutes in his final two preseason games before resting in the past week.
“I felt the way I thought I would,” Bryant said. “I felt normal. I felt like I could do anything I wanted. My body game after game felt good and solid. It shouldn’t be any different just because the regular season started.”
Bryant, no doubt, will remain the leader of an unproven Lakers roster both riddled by injuries and uncertain potential. Lakers coach Byron Scott wants to preserve the 36-year-old Bryant, but added he has left himself wiggle room between 30-40 minutes each game. In the Lakers’ 15 sets of back-to-backs this season, Scott plans to play Bryant between 25-40 minutes per contest.
“We’ll rely on him heavily,” Scott said. “But just like he told the guys and we’ve been telling them in preseason and training camp, we need everybody. Kobe is going to be Kobe. But we need everybody to step up and be ready to play and hopefully have their career bests.”