Vino As he continues producing heroic moments in his latter years, Kobe has uncorked a new era of his career.

One Michael Jordan-esque thing that Kobe Bryant has perfected that doesn’t get talked about a lot is how well Kobe’s career fits into nicely parsed segments — as if we needed any more reasons to crave a tell-all Kobe book once he’s retired.

For Jordan, there was the Jordan Rules era when his Bulls lost to the Pistons for three straight years, the first three-peat, his first retirement/baseball career, his second three-peat and, if you want technical, his time with the Wizards (but let’s all agree to forget that, OK?).

Kobe’s career can be sorted many different ways: by number (8 & 24), by teammates (Shaq, Smush, Pau, Nash/Dwight), by hairstyle (the fro and the “can’t grow a fro no mo”), by coaches (Del Harris, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni) and, now, by nickname.

Bryant was born into a solid nickname, with “Jellybean” and “Bean” coming from his father, but his first official nicknames weren’t so hot. He began his career as Adidas client and was branded as “Ocho” and “KB8″ in many of his first commercials, but it got better quickly in the form of a shared nickname when Shaqobe took over the NBA. And then a couple years into his 24 era, Bryant decided to give himself a new nickname, and he chose “the Black Mamba.”

Folks weren’t so hot about Kobe giving himself a nickname, but it has since grown to the point where it is now the primary focus of Nike’s marketing campaigns, with snakeskin designs being the signature of Kobe’s shoeline. Oh, and Kobe takes it pretty seriously, as he allegedly hisses on the court when he wants the ball in an attempt to mimic the attack signal of the world’s second most deadly snake.

And now Kobe is in love with a new nickname: Vino. According to Kobe, his copywriter friend gave him this nickname last Friday, and it couldn’t be more apropos.

In case you don’t know, vino is the Italian and Spanish word for wine, which fits for Bryant because he grew up and Italy and loves berating Pau under his breath in Spanish, and the translation here is that Kobe continues to get better with age. And if you’ve been watching the Lakers lately, it is easy to understand why this nickname sticks, and I’m sure that Nike’s creative team is whipping up a way to ethically market wine to kids.

What Bryant has been doing since the all-star break has been absolutely unreal, with his latest string of games perhaps trumping any of his previous career streaks, which says a lot. Bryant, who is now 34 years old and in his 17th year in the league, has risen his game to a level never before seen from someone with this many minutes under his belt, and he is close to single handedly raising his team back into the playoff picture after spending months with a sub-.500 record (though I must mention Utah is doing a pretty good job of helping the Lakers out).

At the end of February, Bryant put together a four game stretch scoring at least 29 points per game while shooting at least 51% from the field against the Blazers, Mavericks, Nuggets and Timberwolves. Kobe has only had one such four game streak before in his career, and it came all the way back in December of 2000. That is a 13 year difference between incredibly efficient streaks. The fact that he’s had these runs once as a 22-year old and once as 34-year old is amazing within itself, much less watching these games and watching the kind of effort he’s putting out on a nightly basis.

Over his past eight games, Kobe is averaging 35.9 points per game on a 67% true shooting percentage, and the Lakers have gone 6-2 during that stretch, with their only two losses coming on the road against the Nuggets and Thunder. Even better, the games against the Mavericks, Hawks, Hornets and Raptors all featured some classic Black Mamba moments in which Bryant took over the game in the fourth quarter. There has even been a bit of #8/Frobe mixed in here in there as Kobe has inexplicably found a new tank of helium to power his legs, with his crunch time dunk over Josh Smith ranking amongst his all-time best throwdowns.

Kobe’s best show of the season came last night. The Lakers spent the majority of the game against the Raptors laughably digging themselves into double digit holes by missing rotations, getting blown by and generally not giving a crap on defense, which has been a major theme of the season. At least recently Dwight Howard has made it a theme to start playing engaged defense in the fourth quarter, which is a start, I guess. The Lakers started the quarter down 10 and worked it down to five with two minutes remaining.

That’s when Vino was uncorked and Kobe’s three-point barrage began.

Bryant made three straight impossible shots to revive the Lakers and maybe even the Lakers’ season if you wanted to get dramatic (and why wouldn’t we?). After his trifecta of triples forced overtime, Bryant went and added the game-winning shot to his highlight reel. The Raptors, so scared of Bryant’s scoring ability in the closing seconds of the game, sent a double team at him as he dribbled near half-court, ironically sealing their fate for that possession. As Aaron Gray approached Brynat up top, Kobe dribbled around the double team and galloped right down the lane, elevating for the slam as the younger, more athletic, more spry Rudy Gay watched in amazement as Bryant showed him a little something about coming up big.

Last night, Bryant elicited gasps, roars, screams and even tears of joy out of this observer. It’s one thing to play along with a nickname and believe the premise of its existence, but it’s much different to see a player become the personification of his pseudonym.

Kobe has truly gotten better with age; the arsenal hasn’t grown, it’s just gotten more potent, just like that bottle of Château in your cellar.

And now the Lakers have risen out of the cellar of the Western Conference, with just a half game separating them from taking the eighth seed away from the Utah Jazz. With the run that Kobe is on right now, it is hard to imagine the Lakers not getting into the playoffs somehow.

And once he’s there, it may be tough to stop Vino and a rejuvenated Lakers squad from popping bottles in June.

(This column was originally written for But The Game Is On. It is republished here for my personal archives. If you wish to share this article, please use this link.)

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