Kobe Bryant has never been in better shape, and he’s never played a better stretch of basketball than he has during the Los Angeles Lakers’ current five-game winning streak.
Let’s review the facts: Kobe, who’s still only 28, is the planet’s most physically talented player.
He scored a mind-numbing 268 points (53.7 points a game) during a stretch when his team, a youthful outfit plagued by injuries all season, won those contests by an average margin of 4.4 points.
The Lakers (38-32) are making a push to solidify their playoff positioning and they currently sit sixth overall in the NBA’s Western Conferences standings.
Without Kobe, they’d be lucky to have more than 25 wins right now. Kobe’s scoring streak is the topic du jour in barber shops and gyms, offices and taxis from Harlem to Huntington Beach. And it’s made the Lakers relevant again.
“I think it energized us as a team, it energized the city, and I think that’s great,” Bryant told the Daily Breeze, a Torrance, Calif., newspaper. “Before that, it seemed like we were kind of dead in the water in terms of energy, in terms of belief in the city of what we could do.
“It seemed to kind of do a 180. We’re playing with a lot more energy now.”
Kobe’s streak of 50-point games — 65 against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 16, 50 vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 18, 60 vs. the Memphis Grizzlies on March 22, 50 vs. the New Orleans Hornets on March 23 — ended when he scored “only” 43 against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.
That streak of inconceivable individual brilliance is also a topic of discussion — an invaluable teaching aid, really — for a coach in Tokyo.
Kobe’s father, Joe Bryant, the second-year mentor of the Tokyo Apache, has used his son’s games as a lesson for his club.
The elder Bryant hasn’t asked his players to try to emulate each and every one of Kobe’s moves. That would be pointless. Many of the moves he makes cannot be replicated by mere mortals.
Instead, Joe B. is challenging his players to use his son’s success as a motivational tool for their own personal development.
“If you really think about it, what Kobe has accomplished just this past week is really incredible,” Coach Bryant told reporters after Sunday’s game at Ariake Colosseum.
“You look at (him) one night playing in Memphis, scoring 50 points and then going the next night in New Orleans scoring 50, not even in a 24-hour period because you’ve got to fly on a plane. You have to be in condition to do that.”
Kobe’s stamina and strength have improved as he’s gotten older. Now in his 10th year in the NBA, he is widely recognized as one of the league’s top workout guys.
Before the 2005-06 season his training regimen was described this way by Lakers Topbuzz, a Web site devoted to daily updates on the Lakers:
“Kobe . . . is now a sleek Corvette Stingray. This last offseason he altered his workout, reducing his weight to 215 (97.5 kg) , and increased his wind-sprint workout to create the speed of a point guard and the stamina to prevent fading in the waning moments of a game. He is now leaner and hungry. He wants to be able to run all day and have the strength to be there and make that game-winning shot.”
This transformation has been impressive. It gave Kobe, a three-time NBA champion, an extra push as he entered the prime years of his career.
“That’s what I am going to challenge the guys to get in: that kind of condition,” the coach said.
It starts on the track.
“This has nothing to do with basketball,” the coach said. “We are talking about the program that he runs on the track, a six-week program, and we gave them a little piece the other day and they were (huffing and puffing).
“I want to be able to get them through that and get them into marathon shape so you don’t get tired at all. It’s like a marathon runner’s (stamina).”
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, 52, has been around the game for a long, long time. He knows physical skills alone don’t make a player great on a consistent basis.
Tokyo has the bj-league’s most electrifying player, John “Helicopter” Humphrey on its roster. He led the league in scoring last year and is poised to do it again.
Despite his scoring prowess, Humphrey hasn’t reached his potential yet.
“He has the ability to really be great,” Coach Bryant said. “Physically he looks good, but to be able to take 30 shots in a game you have to be in tip-top condition. If not, they are all going to be short; they are going to be long.”
In recent days, father and son have kept in touch by e-mail.
And what did the proud papa tell his son?
“Don’t stop now, try to get into the playoffs, you must continue to win games,” the elder Bryant revealed. “And if it takes 50 points to win games, you have to do what you have to do.”
Those e-mails, of course, were personal, too, as this family’s ties cross the Pacific Ocean (Joe’s wife, Pam, has been in Tokyo off and on during the hoops season).
“And then we say give a kiss to your wife and all the grandkids,” Joe said with a hearty chuckle.
A more serious tone returned to Bryant’s voice moments later on Sunday after the Apache’s 92-78 loss to the Takamatsu Five Arrows.
It was the team’s 11th straight defeat and their final home game of the season.
“I wanted to play, once we had a lot of injuries,” the coach said.
“I wanted to play a few games, and for some reason teams like Sendai and Niigata were afraid to let me play.”
He laughed, paused and then said: “I said, ‘I’m 52 years old and they are afraid of a 52-year-old man.’ “
The bj-league lost a golden opportunity to gain much-needed overseas publicity.
“I think they really failed to see the big picture,” Coach Bryant said. “I think they were more concerned about their team instead of saying, ‘If Mr. Bryant plays, the NBA will be here, TNT will be here, all the major (networks) will be here, The New York Times (and) L.A. Times will be calling you, ‘Can we get the video? Mr. Bryant played. Can we get that?’
“So that’s the picture that they missed.”
Yet this much is certain: Basketball fans around the globe cannot miss the significance of Kobe Bryant’s on-court brilliance.
Whenever he plays, there’s the collective anticipation of waiting for his next fabulous move.
But don’t forget that it’s in between games and in the offseason when he does the workouts that enable him to remain a great player.