Posted Oct 14 2009 10:18AM
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The smile is not rested. Kobe Bryant was ear-to-ear through the many championship celebrations, beamed at the Ron Artest signing even if it meant the free-agent exit of good friend Trevor Ariza, cherished the rarity of a quiet summer, delighted at the news that Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom would return and arrived back for camp at the Lakers practice facility here joking about his so-called advancing age.
The smile is non-stop. Everything else: rested.
"I'm just going to go and do what I did last year," Bryant said, a kind of pre-emptive warning to the rest of the league. "I just feel like I'm healthier and stronger."
There's the real warning.
The Kobe Bryant of well-used legs, burning lungs and aching back from carrying the burden of expectations was terror enough for opponents. So imagine the possibilities in the new season. He's been enthused by the chance to play as a defending champion again and revived by an offseason free of basketball. No Redeem Team, no injuries to heal, no inner-Laker conflicts.
There was an Asian tour to pitch shoes and a family vacation to Europe. And that was about it.
"You have to go back some time," Bryant said. "Normally, when I have rest like this in the offseason, it's because of an injury or something like that. But I was perfectly healthy. All I did was get healthier. It's been a long time."
The Beijing Olympics took up his time in 2008, the Tournament of the Americas in '07, trying to tunnel his way out of Los Angeles the same offseason. No summer vacation there. The previous offseason, 2006, was a Team USA camp in Las Vegas, which seemed simple enough. But '05 and '04 were for mending, after missing 16 and 17 games during the regular season.
Basketball in summer 2009?
"I stayed away from it for a good month and a half, two months," Bryant said.
That hardly seems possible. No way one of the all-time passionate workers went six or eight weeks without playing.
"Nothing," he insisted.
No one deserved it more. Bryant had been keeping the most relentless pace in the league, from playing all 82 games in 2007-08 to 21 more in the playoffs to putting off recommended finger surgery to the Olympic prep followed by the Summer Games to going 82 for 82 in 2008-09 and finally playing 23 more games last postseason. Only Lakers teammate Pau Gasol played in the 2008 Finals and Beijing and then through to the '09 Finals, but Gasol had just 66 appearances two seasons ago. Bryant took no break.
That made his fourth championship arguably his most impressive personal achievement. Even for someone whose dedication and training is above reproach, cranking it up to 40.9 minutes a game in the postseason is a serious finishing kick to the marathon.
Bryant turned 31 in August, and he reported to Lakers camp saying that the biggest significance to aging -- this will be his 14th season -- is that the reporters who have been quizzing him all along are getting old.
As for Bryant: "I feel healthier. My legs feel rejuvenated. I feel like I'm in great shape. Nothing's nagging me, outside of the hands and the fingers, stuff like that. But that's fine."
All this comes with the disclaimer that has been obvious to the rest of the league, if not the rest of the world. A rejuvenated Kobe -- who averaged 30.2 points, 5.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds in the playoffs -- means a lot of people had better be practicing their drop-and-roll.
"Maybe that's good for us," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said of the fresh Bryant, "because it hasn't been so good for us when he's been tired."
"Rested, sleepy, sick, injured," said Warriors forward Devean George, a former L.A. teammate. "It doesn't matter."
Whatever way, Bryant, a demon worker on his bad days, is revived. That can't be good news for 29 other teams.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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