The itch that Kobe just can't scratch

Updated: 2013-10-15 10:58

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily USA)

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Walking into the building where he won his first Olympic gold medal in 2008, Kobe Bryant tried hard to control the urge to shoot some hoops after being sidelined for half a year by an Achilles tendon tear.

"It's always a rush (to step on court and play)," Bryant said in a media scrum during the Los Angeles Lakers' first practice at the MasterCard Center in Beijing on Monday.

"As soon as I walked into the building, that's the first thing I thought about being here and winning the Olympic gold medal. I wish I could play where I had so many great memories," said the 35-year-old, arguably the most popular NBA player in China.

Massive crowds gather and chant his nickname 'Black Mamba' each time he visits the country. He appears in commercials and on billboards, has about 234 million followers on his micro-blog account and has even sold more NBA jerseys than local hero Yao Ming.

Even he struggles to come to grips with Kobe-mania.

"I am not sure," he told China Daily about his popularity. "I always try to work hard and try to teach them (young Chinese) the values that I've learned from the game of basketball. I think that really made the connection between me and the fans."

The itch that Kobe just can't scratch

The media interest on Monday provided more proof of his status when five bodyguards set a human screen between Bryant and a large gathering of reporters, who ran across the court to him; regardless of the fact there were other active Lakers available for interviews.

Most questions related to how soon he could come back from the career-threatening injury, which happened on April 12 against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Bryant said he had no set timetable, but the five-time NBA championship winner continues to be upbeat.

"I have started stepping up the level of conditioning in training. When you do that, you have to take a day to see how the injury reacts. If it is fine, you can continue to push. It's hard for me to give you an exact window or date because I have to push it and then evaluate.

"It's going well. But this is the biggest challenge of my career. I feel confident that I will be able to overcome it."

With Bryant, who ranks fourth on the league's all-time scoring list, sitting out, the Lakers have a big void to fill on the offensive end but new guard Nick Young, who averaged 13.3 points and 2.8 rebounds in the Lakers first four preseason games, has shown his ability to create shots.

"It's a matter of trying to help him to simplify the game more. He has those offensive skills. He has the tools to be a player who strikes really quickly. We just have to try to help him do that," Bryant said of Young.

However, head coach Mike D'Antoni said nobody can single-handedly make up for Bryant's absence.

"We are doing everything we can. Pau Gasol is taking more responsibility and Steve Nash is really doing well. I don't think anybody makes (up for) Kobe's absence. He (Young) will be good, but there is only one Kobe."

Gasol, who is likely to play more in the post after Dwight Howard's departure for the Houston Rockets, said he will play more aggressively in a position that suits him better.

"I feel more comfortable playing more inside, being more of a focal point in the offense and the main thing is being healthier than last year," said the Spaniard who helped the Lakers win titles in 2009 and 2010.

"We have a lot of offensive weapons. As long as everybody is healthy, we can have many guys make up for Kobe's absence."

(China Daily USA 10/15/2013 page1)