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January 17, 2022

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Kobe Bryant leads revamped Lakers back to Las Vegas

New set of weapons will accompany NBA superstar at Thomas & Mack

Lakers

Michael Goulding / Orange county Register

Los Angeles Lakers players Ron Artest, left, and Kobe Bryant join coach Phil Jackson for a photo shoot in September during media day in El Segundo, Calif.

Kobe's Top 10 plays from 08-09

Click to enlarge photo

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers takes a shot while playing for Team USA.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings

  • Where: Thomas & Mack Center
  • When: 7 p.m.
  • Tickets: $13-$100 (739-3267 or unlvtickets.com)

The world has indeed become Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant’s oyster, which was bolstered when he guided the U.S. to Olympic gold in China in 2008.

He returned to Las Vegas for the Lakers’ annual preseason game a year ago without much rest, but his Beijing experience seemed to boost his desire for more hardware.

The 31-year-old guard returns to Las Vegas this week for Thursday’s exhibition against Sacramento at the Thomas & Mack Center with an even more polished resume.

Bryant, flashing a jaw-jutting scowl, earned his first NBA Finals MVP award when he led the Lakers to the championship over Orlando. Most impressive, his fourth title was his first without center Shaquille O’Neal.

Since Shaq left L.A., the Lakers missed the playoffs once and were zapped in the first round twice. Coach Phil Jackson retired and unretired. Bryant even demanded a trade.

With general manager Mitch Kupchak’s acquisitions of Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown – “the glue guys,” Bryant said on a recent national sports radio show – the Lakers had the supporting characters to flourish in 2008-09.

Make no mistake, however, Bryant was the lead of the show.

The world has been watching.

Bryant’s No. 24 jersey is the hottest seller in China and Europe, as well as the U.S. After twin September typhoons killed hundreds in the Philippines, Bryant was sought for comment.

He’s been a regular in Asia for a few years, on Nike summer tours, and he kicked one off in Manila in July.

The typhoon tragedies made the global hoops ambassador pause.

“They have a lot of strength, a lot of pride,” Bryant told the ABS-CBN news service. “There’s no question that they’ll bounce back and I can’t wait to go back over there and help them out.”

Of his time in the Philippines, Bryant said, “It feels great to be around people who enjoy the game as much as I do.”

His image has turned around since a Colorado rape case against him was dropped in September 2004.

“We tweaked things,” Bryant told CNBC of the PR team that helped him transform that image.

That started in Las Vegas, where he held a camp for a few dozen select local high schoolers, including Lindy La Rocque, now at Stanford.

At different stations in the Durango High gym, Bryant gave one-on-one advice and showed each player a trick or two. He’d step on the shoe of a foe here, pull a jersey – hidden from plain sight – there.

Bryant became more accessible. He talked to a reporter, whom he vaguely knew from Los Angeles who had relocated to Las Vegas, as if they had been schoolboy chums.

All the warmth renewed his endorsement appeal. Panini, an Italian company that won exclusive NBA trading-card rights, is the latest to get behind Bryant’s global attractiveness.

More than half of the $45 million he made last season, according to Forbes.com, was derived from endorsements. From hoops alone, Bryant has earned $148 million.

The Sporting News named him basketball’s Athlete of the Decade, over Tim Duncan, and Forbes ranked him 10th on its list of powerful the top 100 celebrities, ahead of Brad Pitt and behind Will Smith.

Bryant returns to Las Vegas with a new weapon, Ron Artest, but with the same tweaked right pinkie. Bryant completely tore a ligament in that finger in New Jersey in February 2008, but he has declined surgery.

“I won a championship,” Bryant said at his media exit interview after winning it all, “I’m not fixin’ a damn thing.”

Unlike many of his recent journeys to Las Vegas, he returns refreshed for an upcoming season. No Olympics or World Championship, or pesky qualifiers, required his summertime attention.

Although golfing with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb sounded like Bryant’s six or eight weeks off weren’t without their frustrations.

“Absolutely horrendous,” Bryant said on Dan Patrick’s national radio show.

If his preseason form holds, Bryant will play half of the 48 minutes Thursday night against the Kings. He’s averaged 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s shooting 46.4 percent, and only 25 percent from 3-point range.

But those are only preseason figures.

To Kobe Bryant, the numbers that matter are eight months away. Now, he needs one for the thumb.

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