Kobe Bryant is feelin' all his years

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CHICAGO -- This is one battle Kobe Bryant isn't going to win, and he knows it. Maybe Father Time will let him finish the season in relative health, maybe some part or all of next season. But not Christmas night in Chicago.

We met in the tunnel of the United Center, where the visiting team enters and exits, and the exchange went like this.

"Merry Christmas ... "

Merry Christmas to you, too. How are you feeling?

"Old ... I'm feeling old."

Kobe was smiling but not kidding. A few minutes later, it was official. Kobe Bryant, a man who at times seemed nearly indestructible as basketball players go, was a no-go for the prime-time Christmas night date his  Lakers had with the Bulls. The only player in professional basketball the past 20 years who has owned the big stage more brilliantly than Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan. So to not play in the arena Jordan built, in Jordan's town, on Christmas night, with the whole basketball world watching ... imagine how bad Kobe had to feel, head to toe.

Actually, we didn't have to imagine because Kobe told us before the game. When asked whether he could pinpoint one thing that was keeping him out of the lineup on Christmas night, he said with stunning candor, "Old age. My knees are sore.  My Achilles are sore -- both of them. My metatarsals are tight. My back is tight. I just need to kind of hit the reset button. ... It's extremely difficult, especially playing here, playing on Christmas Day and playing in this city. I love playing here. The fans have always been great. There's always a lot of energy in the building. At the same time, I've just got to try to be smart. It's really going against my nature, but I've got to be smart about this."

Smart might not matter, not at this point, not after playing basketball at the most competitive and most physically exacting level in the world for half of his 36 years on Earth. As of this minute, Kobe has played in 240 more games, regular and postseason, than Jordan did his entire career. That's three additional seasons of games. The reset button might tell Kobe he's out of resets. He said with utter confidence that he believes he can get back to some reasonable state of health that will allow him back on the court. But how reasonable is that at this point?

He tried about everything to play these past two games: ice baths, stretching, massage, harder workouts. Didn't matter. "At shootaround [Christmas morning]," he said, "I had about an hour and a half of work with [Lakers physical therapist] Judy Seto taking care of every part of my body."

He couldn't go, and the Lakers played reasonably well without him but couldn't duplicate the result from 48 hours earlier, when they somehow beat the  Warriors, the team with the best record in the league, without him. This time the Bulls got 23 points from Kobe's old teammate,  Pau Gasol, 21 from Jimmy Butler and 20 from Derrick Rose to pull away and win by 20.

And that means we can stop hearing about how the Lakers might be better without Kobe than with him, which some clown advanced analytics man can push all he wants, about how the Lakers are more efficient per 100 possessions with Kobe not on the floor. As coach Byron Scott said on the topic, "I just say those people are idiots. He is one of the best to ever have played the game. When you take him off the team, you are going to have nights where you struggle. We are a much better team when Kobe is on the basketball floor."

So Kobe Bryant, who, for my money, will retire as one of the 10 greatest basketball players ever, is going through the exact same thing all the great athletes experience. His body won't allow him to be the god he has been since, in Kobe's case, he was 15, 16 years old. Just like Derek Jeter, just to pick a contemporary. And it's killing him because, like Jordan, Kobe treats a basketball game like a stage play. People don't come to see the understudy; they come to see the star. Chicagoans turned out Christmas night, yes, to see their Bulls -- a serious contender -- but also to appreciate Kobe, because they know they might not have that chance again to serenade one of the all-timers.

So not playing seemed to be hurting Kobe as much as his sore knees and back and Achilles. When somebody asked before the game whether he felt an obligation to play on a day like this that the league sets aside annually -- with no opposition from the NFL or NCAA -- to showcase the product, it was clear he'd already anguished over it. "I feel an obligation to play if I'm at the YMCA, honestly," he said.

"I think it's important just from a fan's perspective. You want to be able to see the top players play."

No, the notion of retirement didn't come up, not in this conversation. The people assembled before Kobe, most of them, know him reasonably well. He's come back from an Achilles tear better than 90 percent of players who've suffered them. Missing the Christmas night game hurt him, but it didn't kill him. A few years ago, as the mileage began to pile up, Kobe, with the help of trainers, came up with his own grueling routine. He still does it on game days just to get himself ready to play at the level at which he's accustomed.

The thing now is, nobody who plays out on the wing -- shooting guard or small forward -- has ever played this many seasons. Not 18. Big men, sure. The Kareems and Karl Malones function in much less space. They're not chasing (or running from) the best young athletes on the planet. That's Kobe's job. Still.

"There's really no blueprint," he said, "for playing this long, at this position at least, in the NBA. We're really trying to figure new things out and see what's out there and see what works and what doesn't work. It's constantly experimenting."

So, the real skeptic can ask if Kobe should have seen this coming, before he signed the big contract with the Lakers (that has one more season after this one), if he should have kept a closer eye on his minutes in November/December and not played 35 here and 37 there. "I felt pretty good," he said, "when I was doing individual workouts, lifting weights and running. My body was feeling really good. It was just a matter of how it would feel over time. Now, the challenge for me is getting my sea legs a little bit and finding out the spots on the floor I should operate from more consistently where it's habit for me to move around and be active offensively all over the floor. I don't think my body can hold up to that."

You hear that on Christmas night in Chicago and you wonder if Kobe Bryant is going to keep finding his road blocked by Father Time, whether he'll want to put himself through this anymore to play in this kind of discomfort for a team going nowhere. You can't help but wonder if there's going to come a point, even this season, at which the reset button doesn't work and there is no point to it for a player who has been so fabulous and won so many championships.

You wonder if, like Jeter just a few months ago, Kobe will be making his rounds for the final time. Kobe knows Father Time is going to remain undefeated, but perhaps he can stick and move and take the old man longer than anybody else. 

And wouldn't that be just like the Kobe Bryant we've all grown old seeing?