Dubai: The UAE is no stranger to hosting sporting legends, having in the past rolled out the red carpet to superstars like Pele, Mohammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Another chapter will be added next Thursday when Kobe Bryant – one of the biggest brand names in the NBA – headlines a Fitness weekend in Dubai, where he attempts to raise awareness for diabetes.
Despite his ripe old age of 35, 17 of which were spent in the NBA where he won five titles, the Los Angeles Lakers great continues to dominate on the basketball courts and beyond. For the third year in succession Bryant commanded the highest salary of $ 27.85 million for the 2012-13 season while ranking third in the list of Forbes’ richest athletes, behind Woods and Federer.
However, having suffered an Achilles tendon injury last April, critics are questioning if has it in him to be the same player. Social media sites are buzzing with the opinions divided. Some aver that Bryant will be fit and ready when the Lakers take on city rivals LA Clippers in the Staples Centre, Los Angeles, on October 29. Other believe that he will go on to capture the NBA’s scoring crown (Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony watch out), while some feel that Bryant is capable of leading the Lakers to the play-offs while achieving the high scoring mark of 2,000 points for the ninth time in his career (his scored 2,133 last season).
Whichever way you look at it, this will be an intriguing season for both the five-time NBA winner and the Lakers. The good new is that reports of his rehabilitation, despite the odds, have been encouraging it will be foolish to write him off. And with the strong supporting cast that he has, starting with the old guard Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the Lakers should be in the hunt for the play-offs by March next year.
When it comes to personal milestones Bryant looks set to set new benchmarks. For starters, he make the All-NBA first team for a record 12th time, having tied with Karl Malone on 11 last year. Bryant also occupies the top spot in terms of playing time - an astonishing 3,013 minutes – the sixth highest mark of his career.
In an exclusive telephone interview with Gulf News, Bryant opened up on a range of subjects - from a possible sixth NBA crown to the significance of being the first NBA star to visit the Middle East.
This is your first time in the Middle East. What are you looking forward to most about coming here?
I am excited to be coming to the Middle East. I am sure it is going to be a great experience. When it is my first time to any country, I always look forward to experiencing the culture of that country. Most often, I get people telling me how great it is etc., etc. but I am someone who always wants to go and experience all these things for myself. That’s the aspect of the experience I like. So I am definitely very excited about coming to your country shortly.
You have broken many records in your career. Next week you will add a new one when you become the first American professional basketball player to hold an event here in the Middle East. What does that milestone mean to you?
It means a lot to me. The NBA and basketball has really grown so much and become such a huge global sport. When I started playing, things were so different. But now I find that I can be an agent to affect positive change in the sport and in the lives of people through the sport I play. And that excites me. So I take this visit, or any other visit to any other country, as a great honour for myself.
You are well known for your coaching clinics in the US. What skills will you focus on for the youth clinic here in Abu Dhabi on September 26?
I am already doing clinics at various levels with kids here in the US. So at the moment I am happy to be doing what I am doing. The main thing is to get the kids interested in what they are doing so that they can lead a healthy lifestyle for a bright future.
Would you consider coaching a team here in the Middle East if the opportunity comes by?
The first things kids need to do is really and genuinely love the game. Basketball is a passion for me and it needs to be a passion for them as well. They need to enjoy what they are doing.
You’ve had injuries in the past and yet you’ve played through them. This spring you sustained an Archilles tendon injury. Your Instagram and Twitter posts suggest your recovery is going on well. What methods are you using to get back to the court quickly?
I’m feeling pretty good. I’m a lot stronger now, than probably what I was a week ago. I’m getting stronger and stronger by the day and that’s a great feeling. I’m ahead of my schedule, and when the season comes around we will know where we are. I don’t know whether that means I will start the season. I hope so.
What strategies will you adopt while coaching the celebrities to ensure victory for your Team Black Mamba at the American University in Dubai on September 27?
It’s good to be in a situation of being a coach of a team on court. This is surely going to be a lot of fun. I am sure everyone is going to have a lot of fun just seeing me on court and directing all those famous celebrities. I am actually looking forward to it.
Have you thought about life after basketball?
I think to a certain extent I have started thinking about it. Right now I am in a position where I feel I need to see things impact lives in a positive way. The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.
How would you define greatness?
It all depends on who is judging you. It means introspection. I need to keep on asking myself and hopefully I can find the answers along the way.
Would you consider yourself as one of the greats of the game?
I don’t know. I don’t want to start this.
How would you react to a comparison with Michael Jordan?
I wouldn’t really react at all. Both of us belong to a separate era and both of us had a separate set of responsibilites.
What do you think is the state of the NBA?
I think the NBA is in a good state. It’s very competitive at the moment and there are a lot of great names coming out of the NBA. This in turn is helping popularize our sport.
How hungry are you for championship number six?
Number six will be great - that’s what we are all focused on. And yeah, I believe we can do it. I believe in what we have in our team. It’s all about how we support each other. But when it comes to team spirit and attitude, we have loads of that and that will help us quite a bit.
Do you see yourself playing for anyone else besides the Lakers?
Sorry, I don’t see myself playing for anyone else.
Finally, a question on diabetes - which your programme here will focus on. It is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world today and what would you tell children about staying healthy?
I think it is important for kids to understand what they are doing in their life. They can do whatever they want as long as it is something healthy. They need to follow proper nutrition and pursue proper exercise for themselves as a routine.