Kobe Bryant, the pragmatist
With an eye on his legacy, the Laker embraces his role as elder statesman
LAS VEGAS -- It wasn't all that long ago Kobe Bryant would have angrily swatted away any question about how and when his career would end.
On a good day, he'd come back with disdainful sarcasm. On a bad one, you'd get a sneer, then the iciest of silences.
Mortality has never been a comfortable subject.
But now, at a moment when many feared he would begin a descent into an ugly cycle of rage and regret, Kobe Bryant seems to have gathered himself and decided on the persona he will assume for his final act.
"I'm the O.G.," Bryant said, laughing at himself, but also enjoying the image the words conjure up. "That's what these guys call me. They call me the O.G."
We were talking about his role with Team USA at this year's Summer Olympics. At 33, Bryant is four years older than the next oldest player (Tyson Chandler) on the team.
He grew up in an era without cell phones or YouTube, when Michael Jordan was still to be feared and Magic Johnson was revered. Most of his teammates grew up watching him.
It is a bit of a strange place. But it is not the lonely place Bryant found himself in at the beginning of his career, when he had a hard time fitting in as a precocious 17-year-old signee on a veteran team ruled by that cult of personality, Shaquille O'Neal.
Bryant is the one holding court now.
Team USA's youngest stars come up to him for advice, then measure themselves against him on the court. Bryant then praises those who follow his code the closest.
When a reporter asked if he saw any of himself in Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook's sometimes reckless style of play, Bryant nodded and said, "Not only reckless but ultra-aggressive. Russell's one of those types that either you're going to help him win or he's going to do it without you. People can criticize all they want, but s---, it worked for me. I got five of them [championship rings]."
In Bryant-speak, that qualifies as high praise. And it's not surprising Bryant has given the most of it to Oklahoma City's young stars who, along with the Clippers' Chris Paul, have paid him the highest form of respect -- imitation.
"I'm from L.A. and I basically grew up watching him," said Oklahoma City guard James Harden. "I respect him a lot. To be on the same team as him, playing for the USA, means a lot to me.
"But he won't give up information yet. Only when he retires will he give up some. We only have little small talks here and there. But eventually I'll get it out of him."
Retire. There's that word again.
At some point over the past couple of seasons, Bryant seems to have come to a peace about it.
His end is closer and inevitable now. But much to the surprise of those who knew him in angrier iterations, he's neither denying nor fighting it.
"It's been 17 years. I probably got another three years left, max," Bryant said. "Seventeen years is a long time. A lot of people don't play that long."
For years we have wondered how Bryant would face the end of his career. Would he grow angry and bitter as his athleticism faded and his skills diminished? Would he be able to deal with a Los Angeles Lakers team that had grown too old and top-heavy to be favored anymore?
Would he lose faith? Or hope?
Even if he'd tied or surpassed Michael Jordan's six NBA championships, you had the feeling he'd be climbing mountains until the end.
It's hard to say exactly when Bryant decided how he would approach these last good years as a Don. It just seems like he has.
There might still be some tantrums. And yes, this could still get ugly if his Lakers teammates don't match his will or determination.
But once the Lakers pulled off a sign-and-trade to get point guard Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns last week and Bryant knew that his last, best years weren't going to be wasted, he finally seemed to fully commit to the role.
Nash gives the Lakers a chance to win. A real chance. They probably won't be favored; they don't need to be.
"They went for winning now," Bryant said appreciatively. "Which was a big decision they had to make. You know, Jimmy [Buss] and Mitch [Kupchak], they opted to go for the win right now."
Bryant has been talking to vice president of player personnel Buss and general manager Kupchak a lot this offseason. He's back in the organizational decision-making loop after a strange exclusion last summer following Phil Jackson's retirement.
That Buss and Kupchak have so quickly amended the situation should be seen as a show of respect for Bryant. And he seems to have taken it as such.
Although in a way, neither side had a choice. The Lakers gave Bryant the most immovable contract in the NBA. Bryant signed it.
More important than that though is Bryant's appreciation for basketball history. He's always enjoyed the idea of playing his entire career with one team. Bill Russell did that. So did Magic and Larry Bird. Kareem didn't; neither did Wilt and Jordan.
Kobe has always thought about his legacy and his place in the game.
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For years he tried to hide that. He wouldn't talk about Jordan, let alone compare himself to him. But that's a lot of wasted effort. So now it's not uncommon for him to reference Jordan without much of a prompt.
Asked about how his game will mesh with Nash's, Bryant said, "It puts me in my natural position, which is that of a shooting guard and that of a finisher. Michael had Scottie, who was a great facilitator for him and enabled Michael to do what he does best, which is score the ball."
It still stuns me to hear Bryant talking so openly and honestly about how he compares to Jordan. There were just so many years when even Jackson was reluctant to go there.
But mortality has a way of clarifying things for a man. What really matters to him. What legacy he wants to leave.
After the Lakers lost to the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs, Bryant took a little time off to rest and recover from the season. He watched the rest of the playoffs on television, like the rest of us. He answered text messages from Dwyane Wade seeking advice and chatted with Westbrook on the phone.
He stayed engaged as two of the Lakers' rivals surpassed them. He did not hide from that reality.
"I can step outside of myself and realize that I have five [titles] and at some point you've got to share," Bryant said with that trademark swagger. "But I want my 'ship back next year."
It was classic Kobe. Cocky and brash and already turning failure into fresh desire. But it was also comfortable Kobe. The kind of guy who can step outside of himself and see how others see him.
Over the years we've known many sides of Bryant. He's been angry, impatient, depressed and dismayed. We've seen him determined, stubborn and prone to denial.
He started his career with the Lakers and it's looking like he will finish it with them, too.
But somewhere along the way, or maybe just when the Lakers went out and got Steve Nash to ride out with him, Kobe Bryant decided he would end it well.