After 13 years, Kobe Bryant says the motivation still comes from the same place, the love he has for the game. This makes for a nice storyline, but not the real one. There has to be something else, because there is always something swirling and morphing and strengthening like an angry Nor'easter within him. He has always been, and remains, the Next Great Player.
He is still chasing that ghost, all these years later. Some might think the burden became lighter six months ago, when Bryant finally won his first championship without Shaquille O'Neal. But he has never measured himself against Shaq any more than he measures himself against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or anybody else who might come along. In this discussion, there is only one icon who counts, the one who wore No. 23 and pinned six championship banners in the rafters of the United Center in Chicago.
|Kobe Bryant has four titles, two behind Michael Jordan -- the man he measures himself against. (Getty Images)|
"And he's done some things to put himself in that argument," Odom said.
The journey isn't over. At 31, with 13 seasons, four championships, and more than 35,000 NBA minutes in the rear-view mirror, Bryant said he can't quite see the end of the tunnel.
"I can see the light, though," Bryant said Friday after practice in New York, in the midst of the Lakers' first significant road trip of their championship defense. "The light at the end is much brighter than the one at the beginning. I'm not gonna be playing 13 more years. But it's pretty cool, actually, because you get to appreciate things a lot more. You want to milk it. You want to soak everything up while you're still here."
While some of his contemporaries are out of the league or running on fumes, Bryant is still getting better. His antagonist from the seminal rookie-game showdown at All-Star weekend in 1997, Allen Iverson, is suffering from arthritis and an inability to adjust his game with age. Bryant is on the cusp of yet another chapter, one that could finalize his imprint on the game as 1(b) to Michael Jordan's 1(a).
Six years passed between Bryant's third title and his fourth, which lifted the can't-win-without-Shaq weight from his shoulders. The Lakers bused from Manhattan to New Jersey on Saturday in the crosshairs of an ominous snowstorm, but otherwise unencumbered in their efforts to repeat. They carried the NBA's best record (20-4) into a game against the league-worst Nets (2-25), showing no signs of letting off the accelerator.
Having enjoyed the champion's treatment of playing 17 of their first 21 at home, the Lakers opened their first five-game road trip with a sluggish loss at Utah. Coach Phil Jackson, the Zen Master of travel logistics, among other things, brought his team home for a day before heading to Chicago and Milwaukee. A broken-down equipment truck on I-94, and frightening turbulence from Milwaukee to Newark, N.J., provided the backdrop. Bryant, battling a stomach virus and a broken finger on his shooting hand, carried the champs with 42 in Chicago -- "My favorite city," he said coyly -- and a buzzer-beating, overtime game-winner against the Bucks.
"That's why he's the best player in the world, right?" Odom said.
That remains his goal, one that is currently obscured in his fanatically competitive mind by more mundane tasks, such as navigating the regular-season journey on the way to his first title defense since the 2003-04 season. Then, the Lakers' dynasty crumbled under the weight of the Shaq-Kobe feud with a 4-1 loss to the Pistons in the Finals. It has been a long road back.
"We have the pieces in place," Bryant said. "The moment is here. You don't want to let it slip away because it took so long to get to this point. You don't want to lose it because of lack of focus or lack of work ethic. That's just not gonna happen."
Earlier this season, Bryant said he did nothing but sit on a beach after the Lakers beat Orlando in the Finals. But we know better. Like Jordan, he is obsessed with changing and improving his game from year to year, and has found perhaps a more important way to do that than ever before. A series of adjustments and readjustments could sustain him long enough to chase down Jordan's six titles and perhaps even surpass them.
"I've never given consideration to it," Bryant said. "I've wanted to gobble up as many as I could, just because that's everybody's goal, to win. With this team that we have, we want to try to milk the cow and just see what happens, see where it goes."
Bryant has operated more often and more effectively in the post and midrange area of the floor this season than ever before. As the personnel around him has changed, so has his game. He sought out Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon for a one-day crash course to refine his post moves, and the results have to send a shiver down the spines of anyone with designs on stopping the Lakers in June.
Through 24 games, Bryant has more than doubled the frequency of his field-goal attempts on post-ups from last season -- to 33.9 percent of his attempts from 14.2 percent, according to Synergy Sports Technology. His attempts in isolation have fallen to 20.6 percent from 32.8 percent, yet his shooting percentage on those plays has risen to .440 from .429. His frequency of attempts as the pick-and-roll ball handler has dropped to 10.5 percent from 20 percent. He remains among the league leaders in scoring -- second behind Carmelo Anthony with a 28.9 average entering the weekend -- yet those points are coming in a deadlier, more productive and more energy-efficient way.
"I think the team that I have is different, so I've adjusted my game and been able to play to more of my strengths," Bryant said. "When I was in high school, I'd always been a really good midrange player. When I came to the Lakers, with Shaq and so forth, everything moved back to the perimeter for me, so that was an adjustment. And now I'm just kind of going back to the way I've always played. I'm more in my element. I knew that this year being in the post was going to be a huge advantage for us, so I really worked on that quite a bit."
The more Bryant professes things to be the same after his fourth title, the more those around him notice how different he is. Derek Fisher said he sees a more "relaxed" and "refreshed" Bryant. Jackson said Bryant is "still as driven as he's ever been," but admitted noticing a historic context to that drive with Jordan's six rings now within sight.
"Well, five has to come before six," Jackson noted. "But there's no doubt that he knows that it means another thing, another notch in the belt as far as that goes for a stellar career. But it's about the process, about the trip. It's not about the end result, it's about how you go about doing it."
Where does Bryant go from here? Health and luck must be his teammates, and the kind of continuity that escaped the Lakers' dynasty at the beginning of the decade must be captured at the end of it. GM Mitch Kupchak retained one very important piece over the summer, re-signing Odom to a three-year deal with a team option for a fourth season. Next up will be Pau Gasol, whose union with Bryant has been far more harmonious than Shaq's and could be even more decorated. The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Gasol has agreed in principle to a three-year extension that will keep him in L.A. through the 2013-14 season.
"I love that guy," Bryant said. "It's crazy to think it, but he's still underrated. He's a great, great player."
What about Bryant? Only two summers after demanding to be traded, he opted not to exercise an early termination option on July 1 that would've made him an unrestricted free agent. Now, the Times reports, his agent, Rob Pelinka, is engaged in "ever-improving discussions" on a three-year extension that would run concurrently with Gasol's.
"We're not going to discuss that," Bryant said Friday. "We don't talk about that publicly at all."
As with everything else in Bryant's world these days, the body of work speaks for itself.