Even after visiting the fountain of youth in the form of a knee procedure in Germany that allowed him to average nearly 39 minutes per game last season, Bryant senses that the end is near -- and not only for his knees, wrist, ankles or other body parts, but also for his incomparably competitive mind. The window, he is ready to acknowledge, is two years. Two more chances to catch Jordan.
"It's not about health necessarily," he said. "It's about, 'Do I want to do it? Do I have that hunger to continue to prepare at a high level?' "
Bill Parcells, a competitive sociopath from another sport, used to say that if you're talking about retirement, it means you've basically already retired. To hear Bryant, the most cutthroat basketball combatant of his generation, speak about the day -- the moment -- when his smoldering desire to win finally will be extinguished, was something to behold.
So much so that the next question -- about whether Bryant would ever change his mind and hang on for an extra year or two as a role player averaging 15 points just to pad his championship resume -- needn't have been asked. "That's not gonna happen," Bryant said. "That's just not me."
This is the first time we've heard Bryant come anywhere close to admitting that he doesn't have the obsessive drive that he's known for. That sixth ring has eluded him. The Lakers looked the part of a three-peat in 2011 before the Mavericks swept them. A new coach and a new system gave another opportunity last season. No dice. So now he's chasing that sixth with an upgaded core featuring a two-time MVP and a perennial MVP candidate multiple-DPOY winner.
The fact that he just landed this core, albeit one with a definitive shelf life, and is already talking about walking away, says a lot about where his mind is. Bryant hasn't gone soft, but he clearly sees the end. This happens with a lot of players, where they can see the horizon for the first time and it changes their outlook.
The reality is this: the Lakers have to win the title now. There's a time limit on getting Bryant that sixth ring. The clock is ticking.