Dedication the key to Bryant's longevity
Lakers’ NBA star is only the fifth to reach 30,000 points
Only four other players – Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain – hit that mark, so it is a meaningful accomplishment.
The funny thing is, while Bryant was the youngest to do it, aided by going to the NBA directly out of high school, he needed more games to reach that mark than any of the others, who are all Hall of Famers.
Malone, who entered the league at age 22, needed 28 fewer games. (Bryant started only seven of his first 150 games in the NBA, whereas Malone was starting, and playing 30 minutes a night, from almost the moment he entered the league.)
Jordan entered the league at 21 and left twice, in 1993 and 1998, despite leading the league in scoring the previous season. He did not hit 30,000 points until he was 38 and playing with the Washington Wizards. Still, he needed 220 fewer games – almost three seasons’ worth – than Bryant to reach the milestone.
That Bryant needed more games than any of these other players might, in the eyes of some, mute the accomplishment. But it also serves to frame the achievement in a different light: It is downright incredible that he has played so many games at such a high level.
The crazy truth is that at 34, with all those games on his knees and ankles, Bryant is not only leading the NBA in scoring this season, he is also enjoying the most efficient scoring season of his career. Bryant’s true shooting percentage (which incorporates the value of 3-pointers and free throws) is 61.1. Previously, his best TS percentage was 58.0, in 2006-07.
So Bryant might be a better scorer today than when he was 28 — when athleticism and experience often combine to produce peak years for NBA wings — which would be an accomplishment that speaks as much to what Bryant has done off the court as to what he has done on it. Even for all of Jordan’s veteran guile, his TS percentage declined steadily after he won his second title with the Bulls as a 28-year-old in 1991.
Any profile you read of Bryant will make mention of his intense preparation — not just in thousands of jump shots but in thousands of minutes with his feet in ice baths. In 2009, Rick Reilly followed Bryant around on game day for ESPN the Magazine, and noted that Bryant travels in a customised van that allows him to ice his feet and knees (which he does three times a day without fail) while he watches game video.
Earlier this year, when Chris Ballard profiled Bryant and his basketball star father, Jelly Bean Bryant, for Sports Illustrated, he included this description of Bryant’s world of personal trainers, massage therapists and ice baths: “He travels with his own trainer, Tim Grover, and he persuaded the team to hire his longtime physical therapist, Judy Seto, so he could receive treatment at all hours. When the Lakers held a Super Bowl party in February at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, all but one of the players relaxed and watched the game. Bryant sat in a corner with his ankle in a bucket of ice and directed Seto as she worked on his limbs.”
There is no such thing as “off time” for Bryant.
Whereas most players will be remembered for their exploits on the court – and Bryant, with the five rings he has won in Los Angeles, will certainly be a legend for his footwork, his fadeaways and his snarl – Bryant’s most enduring impact might be the example he set off the court. For goodness’ sake, the man went to Germany to have an operation he could not have in the United States, so that his knees, worn thin from so many seasons and postseasons, would potentially have a bit more life.
Even if he did not change the game on the court the way, say, Jordan or Chamberlain did, he has done as much as anyone else to push the limits of off-court dedication.
No one has taken better care of his body (even Jordan drank and smoked cigars), which is why perhaps no one else has played at Bryant’s level so many games, minutes and dunks into his NBA career.