- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics have lost their court leader for the season and are clinging to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers are battling an array of injuries (the most recent a torn plantar fascia that will sideline Pau Gasol for at least a month) and are languishing in 10th place in the Western Conference, excluded from the current postseason parameters.
Even so, good luck trying to tell Kobe Bryant that the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is dead, or that Thursday's game at TD Garden doesn't matter. Normally, Boston vs. LA generates an edginess (and bitterness) that stokes the fires of this long-time rivalry, and usually Kobe revels in the misfortunes of the men in green. But Bryant takes no pleasure in the torn ACL suffered by Rajon Rondo or the uncertainty surrounding the futures of two of his most ardent foes, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
"I'm not happy about what's happening to them," Bryant said. "We're all running out of time. So I understand."
In a lengthy, wide-ranging exclusive interview at the Lakers' team hotel in Boston, Kobe touched on trash-talking with Pierce, his admiration for Rondo's game, his predraft visit with the Celtics 17 years ago and his budding friendships with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Bryant was eager to weigh in on the notion that the Celtics actually might be better off with Rondo shelved for the remainder of the season. When presented with that theory, Kobe laughed uproariously -- for a really, really long time.
The Celtics are 4-0 with a resurgence of ball movement since Rondo went down, but Bryant scoffed at the significance off the minuscule sample size.
"You don't want Rondo? Send him my way," Kobe declared. "I love everything about him. Everything. I love his attitude, I love his chippiness, his edge, his intellect, his know-it-allness. All of it. That's what makes championship players.
"What guard have you seen at his size that will get you 18 assists, 17 boards and 20 points all in one game? That's unheard of. I love that kid. I always make a point of talking to him during All-Star [Weekend]. He's one of my favorites."
Kobe acknowledged the irony of gushing over a player who contributed to the demise of his team during the 2008 NBA Finals, when the Celtics clinched the title on the Garden parquet with a 131-92 Game 6 thrashing. In that game, Bryant stumbled through a 7-of-22 shooting night with four turnovers.
"One of the lowest moments of my career," he admitted.
Bryant said he began wondering in the waning minutes of that Game 6 loss if he'd ever have a chance to get back to a title game. His team had wilted under pressure and he was skeptical about whether they had the necessary personnel to win it all. He already had won three championship rings with the Lakers, but he had not yet won one without Shaquille O'Neal, his former teammate and sometimes tormentor. That, he conceded, mattered to him.
"I'm sitting there on the bench, just beside myself, burning with frustration, and I look over and Bill Belichick is walking toward me," Kobe recalled. "I had never met him. Never spoken to him. He had courtside seats across from our bench, and with 20 seconds left in the game, he came over and said, 'Don't you worry about this. I know what you are going through. We just lost a tough one ourselves [to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII]. Just bounce back. Be ready next year.'
"He didn't have to say that. The clock was winding down, we were getting ready to walk off. I thought it was really cool. Respect across our professions."
Since then, Belichick and Bryant habitually have talked shop when Kobe comes to Boston. Last season, Belichick visited the Lakers' locker room and shared some pearls of coaching wisdom.
"He talked to me about how he coaches the game, how he minimizes mistakes, the value of a possession," Kobe reported. "Very interesting topics."
In spite of his newfound respect for the HC of the New England Patriots, Kobe said he hasn't switched pro football allegiances.
"No, I'm an Eagles fan, for better or for worse," he said. "I"ve got my fingers crossed that this Chip Kelly dude will work out."
Asked if Belichick would be visiting with him on Thursday, Bryant answered, "I'm hoping Gronk will be there. I like him. He seems to perform at a high level every time out. Last time we were in town we talked for a little bit. He was a fun guy.
"Everyone is so worked up about what he did [in Vegas]. It's funny. If there were camera phones back in the day, the biggest athletes in the world would have had a lot of explaining to do."
Both the Celtics and Lakers have been under scrutiny for their underwhelming performances and share common laments: the arduous task of implementing new players, compensating for an aging core of veterans and dealing with major injuries to key personnel.
So who would Kobe rather be right now: a Laker or a Celtic?
"I'd take the Lakers, for sure," Kobe answered. "Honestly, I like where we are. I like the pieces we have. We're still a pretty big team. If we get our guys healthy, I think we can make a significant run at it.
"So I'll take my guys. And, even if I felt differently, I'm such a die-hard Lakers fan I'd never admit to wanting to be them," meaning the Celtics.
Kobe actually had some brief exposure to the "Celtics way" in 1996 when he worked out for Boston prior to the NBA draft. When Bryant's handlers told him the Celtics, who held the sixth pick, wanted him to come in, the 17-year-old high school kid flatly refused.
"They said, 'What do you mean no?"' Kobe said. "I was such a Lakers fan and I just hated the Celtics. They said, 'C'mon now, you have to do this.' So I asked them, 'But do I have to wear all that green stuff?"'
Yes, he did. When he arrived at the workout facility, he was handed a green workout shirt and matching green shorts. He did dribbling and shooting drills with Dennis Johnson, a former All-Star turned assistant coach, then did some half-court offensive drills. (Kobe even tweeted a photo of his workout on Wednesday.)
"DJ was awesome, actually," Kobe said. "Once I got there I had to admit, 'Hey, this wasn't as bad as I thought.' I had a great time. It was just getting past all that god-awful green stuff."
Boston ended up taking Antoine Walker in that draft. Bryant was chosen 13th by Charlotte and traded to the Lakers. Since then he has won five rings, including a win over the Celtics in the 2010 Finals.
In spite of the Lakers' current woes, Kobe still adamantly believes his team will be in the playoffs. He has only missed the "second season" once in his career, but it's becoming more difficult to impose his will on the game. If he can drag this Lakers team into postseason relevance, it could well be the finest accomplishment of his career.
Either way, the end, Kobe knows, is coming sooner rather than later.
"I think about it often," he admitted. "Quite often. I've tried to scrape the plate every year that I've played. I've been going after it every year. So I've got two years left, and I want two more rings."
His contract is up two seasons from now. He will be 35, and Bryant said he's seriously contemplating retirement.
"It could be it," he said. "There's a very high probability. It's been 18 years, man. That's a long, long time."
So much of that time has been entwined with the guys wearing the god awful green shorts. The longevity of Pierce and KG, said Kobe, has provided some perspective in their long and often heated competitions.
"If there's one Celtic that tries to talk smack to me, it will be Paul," Kobe reported. "We're similar in age, have been through some of the same things, so he feels like he can try. But he's not as good at it as I am.
"I don't talk trash often, but when I do, I go for the jugular."
The camaraderie of today's NBA players, fueled, in part, by their AAU alliances, is mildly disturbing to Bryant, who preferred it when the enemy was anyone who didn't ride the team bus with you to the game.
"They don't seem to want to talk any trash," Kobe shrugged. "I say everything to LeBron. He says nothing back. He just laughs. There's no banter back and forth. I guess it's a generational thing. When I first came into the league, the trash talk was downright cutthroat."
One thing still hasn't changed. Only one team can win it all, and the rest go home disappointed. It's a mindset Kobe understands all too well, but one he must impart to some of his new Lakers teammates, Dwight Howard among them. Bryant has publicly challenged Howard in recent days to play through a shoulder injury, particularly now with Gasol out indefinitely.
"We need some urgency," he explained. "Dwight has never been in a position where someone has driven him as hard as I have, as hard as this organization has.
"It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That's just how we do it. And that's foreign to him.
"When you think about it, there aren't many organizations that look at it that way. There are only two that can really honestly say that's what they live by: Los Angeles and Boston."
Boston vs. LA. See you Thursday.
12hMatt Walks, ESPN.com