Thursday will mark my final regular season game against the Nuggets in Denver. It should be another one of those nights just to take it all in, and think about how much has changed over time.
This being my final season in the NBA is definitely something that has taken some time to get used to. I’ve done this since I was a six-year old kid, and have been fortunate enough to do it well professionally for almost 20 years. I’ve always understood that I wouldn’t be able to play forever, and that there’s much more to life for me to experience after I’m done being a basketball player. I’m not afraid of the future in that regard. It’s something that I’m very realistic about.
But one thing that has happened this season made me think a little more about the end. My good friend and former teammate Kobe Bryant suffered a knee injury shortly after he returned from his absence with an Achilles tear. Seeing him go down — almost like a kindred spirit — reminded me that at some point, I’m not going to be able to play.
I’ve rarely assumed that there would always be more games, and more chances to do something special. I’ve always kind of approached playing the game and being around the game as though this could be it every time I stepped out there. I’ve always had that mentality.
Still, Kobe’s injury really put me in a tough place emotionally — not only because he is a friend, but also because it was an example of just how fragile this business really is, and how quickly your career can change. Things like that can happen, and just like that, you might not be the same.
It was a tough couple of days to kind of process that. But I’m better with it now. I know he’ll be fine. He’ll be great when he comes back.
MILE HIGH FINALE
There’s definitely something different about playing in the high altitude in Denver than other places. The science behind it and altitude training have proven as much. But I think it’s also a mindset. When you’re going into a setting where you’re going to play a game on Thursday and you get there on Wednesday, there’s not much you can do other than to prepare yourself mentally for feeling the difference.
One thing that I’ve always tried to do in Denver: If we don’t have practice the day before, I try to push myself harder than I normally would when we have shootaround the morning of the game, and in our pre-game warmups. That way, when the game starts, it’s not as difficult to push through it. Your heart and lungs have experienced what that feels like because you’ve already pushed yourself.
Denver and the Nuggets franchise are very different now from the first time I got the opportunity to play there in my rookie year. During my second stint with the Lakers, we played Denver in the playoffs twice. The Western Conference Finals series we played with them in 2009 was a really competitive series. We had some pretty good matchups with those guys over the years.
Back then, their head coach was George Karl, and he’s one of the best to ever coach in our game. He won a ton of games with a lot of teams, coached teams that went to the Finals, and made several playoff runs. Over the years, he and I have gotten as close as possible for a coach and player who never worked together.
I spent some time with his son, Coby Karl, when he was on our team in LA for a couple different stints. Coby and I got close, and we still stay in contact. I got closer to George because of my friendship with Coby. It’s well documented that both George and Coby battled cancer and survived. That also brought us closer. George was always very supportive of me and my family situation with my daughter, so I returned that same support and love as he was going through his experience. I’ll always have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
Now their head coach is Brian Shaw, who was a teammate of mine in Los Angeles during my first run with the Lakers, and an assistant coach under Phil Jackson during my second stint. I’m extremely happy for Brian. It’s a well-deserved opportunity for him. I feel blessed and fortunate to still be a player now, going back to play against a team with a head coach that I used to play with. It’s a fantastic reminder of how full circle my career has come, and how many different things I’ve been able to see and experience over my time in the league.