NBA STARS ARE LIKE SPORTS CARS; THE YEARS DO NOT matter as much as the miles. Kobe Bryant is only 31, but including the playoffs, he has logged just over 45,000 career minutes, more than Larry Bird, who played until he was 35. By the time Michael Jordan reached those minutes, he was in his dotage in Washington.
With that kind of mileage, it is surprising that until this season Bryant did not experience his first real brush with basketball mortality, cloaked in injuries to his back, knee, ankle and hand. He sat out more games (nine) than he had missed in the previous four years combined (seven). He acknowledged that he lost some elevation. When he scored 12 and 13 points in back-to-back first-round playoff games against the Thunder, a terrifying vision of the future flashed in front of the Lakers' eyes: Kobe Bryant, $30 million a year role player. "We were concerned," says Los Angeles director of athletic performance Chip Schaefer, "that he wasn't the Kobe Bryant we've all seen."
Bryant had fluid drained from his knee in the middle of the Oklahoma City series, took a few days off from practice, and the lift in his legs returned as suddenly as it had vanished. When Bryant refers to himself as old, stroking the nonexistent stubble on his cheeks, he is being facetious, a dig at anybody who would believe it. "The notion that I'm old...that's funny to me," Bryant says. "They should know me better."
Indeed, when Father Time tried to come for him this season, he gave the old guy the middle finger.
WHEN CHUCK PERSON ARRIVED IN LOS ANGELES for training camp before the 2009-10 season, he had never before said a word to Bryant. Person, a former Pacers and Kings assistant, was hired by the Lakers as a special assistant to help Ron Artest with his transition to the team. They did not need anybody to help Bryant with his shooting. But Person, who spent 13 years stretching NBA defenses, had studied Bryant's stroke from afar, marveling at his footwork, his vertical leap, his power of separation. "There was just one thing that I felt I could enhance," Person says.
A player is taught, from the time he can lift the ball overhead, to finish his shot with his index finger pointed at the ground. "Kobe was following through with so much of the index that the ball was turning ever so slightly off that finger and he was getting a little sidespin," Person says. "When he wasn't right on, the ball would roll off the rim." Person felt he could help Bryant, but he could not just walk up to one of the best scorers ever and tinker with his shot.
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. Person saw an opening. 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 told him that we should start working together," Person says, "and 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 met at the Lakers' training facility and shot for an hour before practice. The next day they did it again. 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 had. 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 shoot-around, 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, sinking the 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, 17 years later, would bring Bryant from high school to L.A. "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; to lift his right elbow from nose level to forehead level, which has heightened his arc; and to keep that elbow pointed at the basket no matter how his body is contorted.