- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
On Dec. 11 Los Angeles played the Timberwolves, and point guard Jordan Farmar made a lazy pass to Bryant at the three-point line. Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer lunged for it, deflecting the ball off Bryant's right index finger. Told he had an avulsion fracture, Bryant refused to sit out, and the next night in Utah he missed 17 of 24 shots, including eight of nine three-pointers. The time was right for Person. He approached Bryant and explained that he too had suffered an avulsion fracture in his index finger, with Indiana in 1991. He also told Bryant that the injury presented an opportunity.
"I asked him for his trust," Person says, "and I told him that we should start working together. He didn't argue with me. He bought in right away." Person wanted Bryant to put more pressure on the middle and ring fingers in his release, creating more backspin and friendlier rolls off the rim. The pad Bryant had to wear on the index finger would force him to concentrate on the other two.
The day after the Utah game, Bryant and Person convened early at the Lakers' training facility and shot for one hour before practice. The next day they did the same. Then they flew to Chicago and worked out that night at the United Center. During a break Bryant asked Person, "Did you ever score 40 points with your finger this way?" Person said he did. For Bryant it was a rare moment of self-doubt, and then it was gone. "I'm going to get 50," he said. They arrived at the United Center early the next morning for a shootaround, stayed late, and that night Bryant lit up the Bulls for 42 points on 15-of-26 shooting. A day later he scored 39 in Milwaukee, with a game-winner at the buzzer.
Penetrating Bryant's circle is not easy, but Person had a way in. As a freshman at Brantley (Ala.) High School 31 years ago, Person attended a summer basketball camp at Auburn University. The guest counselor was Jerry West, who as the Lakers executive vice president would bring Bryant from high school to Los Angeles 17 years later. "All the things I told Kobe," Person says, "are things Jerry West told me at that camp." Person persuaded Bryant to raise the ball straight into his shot instead of holding it for a moment at his hip, which has quickened his release; lift his right elbow from nose level to forehead level, which has heightened his arc; and keep that elbow pointed at the basket no matter how his body is contorted. "If you saw a tape of him shooting six months ago," Person says, "it would look completely different."
Many in the organization did not understand why Bryant insisted on playing with the broken finger. He could afford to take time off in December; they needed him healthy in June. As it turned out, playing in December is exactly what prepared Bryant for June. He spent the regular season refashioning his shot in time for the playoffs. The transition was not always easy—his field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point percentage all dipped as Person's tinkering intensified—but it was necessary. Although the fracture has healed, Bryant was left with an arthritic knuckle on his index finger that is swollen and painful but appears to affect him not at all. "It's almost helped to some degree," says Lakers shooting coach Craig Hodges. "The index finger is just supposed to hold the ball. The middle finger is supposed to do the work. Look at the net when Kobe shoots now. The ball sinks to the bottom, and 'Pow!' It pops up. That's the backspin he's getting from the middle finger."
Bryant's longevity is a by-product of the many subtle adjustments he has made over the years, starting in 1999, when he broke his right hand and spent all of training camp developing his left. Back then, defenders would dare Bryant to shoot from outside, an unfathomable strategy today. They also tried to lock him up in the post, equally unthinkable. "I don't know any better post player in the game now," West says. Next up for Bryant, says Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, "he will learn to come off screens so the ball will work for him and he won't have to beat everybody." Bryant's endless improvements require a kind of humility, the best player in the game forever open to the idea that he can get better.
A month ago, it would have sounded preposterous to call Bryant the best, since he had supposedly lost that title to LeBron James. For the second straight season James won MVP, and yet for the second straight postseason Bryant is casting doubt over the validity of those votes. James may dominate winter, but Bryant owns spring. "The perception that the torch has been passed, and somebody else is the best in the game, is what drives him now," says Lakers assistant Brian Shaw. "Especially because he's still playing and the guy who's supposed to be the best isn't."
Bryant recognized as far back as his early 20s that the next generation was gunning for him and he had to stay a few jab steps ahead. In 2000, he spoke at the ABCD basketball camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and at one point in his speech a voice shouted from the back of the auditorium, "I could take you one-on-one!" The voice belonged to Lenny Cooke, who at the time was the top-rated high school sophomore in the country, LeBron before LeBron. An hour later, Bryant walked into the gym and sat next to Gary Charles, president of Grassroots Basketball of America. "Where's Lenny?" he asked. Charles pointed to Court 1. Bryant watched closely for 15 minutes, then tapped Charles and told him, "He has nothing for me."
A full decade later Bryant is still fending off the future. He is the Finals headliner, along with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, crusty thirtysomethings stubbornly resisting the hands of time. The men who keep them going could play as much of a role in this series as the reserves, so it's fitting that the opening salvo was fired by Lakers' longtime trainer Gary Vitti. Last weekend in Phoenix, Vitti was delighted to learn that Crosby, Stills & Nash (another age-defying group) was staying at the team hotel, because the band's road manager happens to be Wayne Lebeaux, who used to be the Celtics' head equipment guy. Vitti convinced the front desk that Lebeaux suffered from a rare skin condition requiring that the temperature in his room be set to a balmy 95°. When Lebeaux checked into his sweatbox, he found a note from Vitti, reminding him in colorful language of the sweltering conditions the Lakers had to endure at the old Garden.
Lakers-Celtics: The heat is back on, and basketball's greatest rivalry is once again at Bryant's fingertips.