Poll Question: Should Kobe Bryant play in European exhibition games?
It was only a few weeks ago that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson thought Kobe Bryant would be limited in his play at the opening of training camp. After Bryant underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee this off-season, Jackson said Chip Schaefer, the team's director of athletic performance and player development and its strength coach, informed him he thought Bryant would have to sit out all the exhibition games as he rehabbed.
Because, as Jackson put it, Bryant had been "working hard the past month," Jackson expressed confidence during his preseason press conference that Bryant would play when the Lakers began their preseason schedule with stops in London on Oct. 4 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and in Spain on Oct. 7 against Regal FC Barcelona. But Bryant has only appeared in one practice in the six sessions of training camp thus far, and Jackson has expressed uncertainty whether he'll actually play when the Lakers leave for Europe.
"Yes, you want the fans that have paid ... to have an opportunity to see remarkable players," Jackson said, regarding the two sold-out games in Europe. "But if he's not well enough to do so, obviously we won't do that. It would be what I called 'Beckham payback time.' "
Jackson, of course, was humorously referring to English soccer player David Beckham, who joined the Galaxy in 2007, appeared in limited fashion for his Major League Soccer debut and remained sidelined for most of the season because of an ankle injury. In Beckham's case, the Galaxy felt pressured to play him because of his marketing potential as well as all the hyperbole from the organization about what Beckham could do for the MLS. In Bryant's case, the Lakers are on, essentially, an ambassador's tour, and the European fans want to see the league's best player.
The cases are different, however, since this is the Lakers' exhibition season we're talking about. Bryant said, on just the third day of training camp, that he wouldn't be talking about his knee anymore. His manner was serious but lighthearted, and he seems fairly relaxed in interviews and on the sidelines thus far. Bryant obviously wants to play, but he's not in a frustrated mood, as he was at times last season, when he was continually overcoming assorted injuries and fielding questions about them. Additionally, Bryant's current rehab process doesn't have the same long-term prognosis as Andrew Bynum's. Bynum is expected to miss all of the pre-season and, in Jackson's estimation, at least two to three weeks of the regular season. In Bryant's case, he participated Wednesday in a non-basketball workout, and Jackson said it was possible he would practice Thursday. "Just taking it step by step," Bryant said after Sunday's practice. "Just continue to try to progress every day, that's all."
Keep all of this in mind as you consider this poll question: Should Bryant play in the European exhibition games? My answer comes with a qualifier. The Lakers should play him only if he's healthy enough to do so. As much as it would disappoint the Europeans that he'd sit out, there's absolutely no benefit for the Lakers in leaving him vulnerable. This also isn't the playoffs, where Bryant seemingly received treatment every waking minute to keep the knee going. In his rehab, I'd expect Bryant to be striving for improvement but not just for the sake of play in Europe, and his comments seem to support that. Nonetheless, Bryant's well aware of his world-wide popularity and has indicated in the past that part of his wanting to play points to the fact that some fans may only have one chance ever to see him on the floor. So in that respect, it'd be ideal to give Bryant a token appearance but nothing that will put him in harm's way.
No doubt, the Lakers would prefer to have Bryant on the court. Even if it is just the preseason, it never hurts to solidify the chemistry early among the players who will most likely see the floor. For the newcomers, it also gives them a chance to get used to playing alongside Bryant. He's matured tremendously over the years, but there's no doubt an adjustment process for those joining him on court. The perfect combo is Bryant fully utilizing his tremendous talent and his teammates fully understanding how to provide a supporting role. On the other hand, if there's a time for the bench reserves and newcomers to get some run, it's during the preseason.
There's still plenty of time for Jackson to decide and for Bryant to make progress on his knee. The team practices Thursday, flies to London on Thursday night and then doesn't play until Monday. But it's not like the Lakers are on a mini-vacation. There' are several practices as well as team, league and sponsorship events scheduled during the trip. But if I had to vote today, I'd say it's better to sit Bryant out. If he makes progress and he's done rehabbing by Monday, by all means, allow the Black Mamba to put on a show. If not, just take a rest. Consider it a return on investment for, you know, when the games actually matter.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant elevates for a pull-up jumper over Boston guard Ray Allen in the second quarter of Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Bryant powers his way to a layup past Allen in the first half of Game 7. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times