Kobe Bryant isn't holding back
ONTARIO, Calif. -- Over the past couple of days Kobe Bryant has commented on or mentioned the following people: himself, Dwight Howard, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Andrew Bynum, Smush Parker, Phil Jackson, Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom, Chris Paul, and a litany of others.
He has spoken openly about his inevitable retirement in a few years. He has offered candid opinions on the legends he has played with, played against or stood alongside.
It has been like his own version of "A Christmas Carol," where the narrator goes on a journey of self-reflection as he's visited by the ghosts of Christmas' past, present and future.
It's not hard to see why he has been in this contemplative place lately: At 34, with a torchbearer (Dwight Howard) to groom and then hand off to, he can see the end of his road in the NBA.
Yes, there are a lot of games to be played and titles to be won. There is a legacy to polish.
But more than at any point in the decade I've covered him, Bryant seems at peace. He has set his terms for how he'll pass the franchise to Howard. He has decided he's only going to do this as long as he can be one of the best players in the game.
There's a certain kind of freedom that comes with making decisions like this. You say what you want to say, not what you're supposed to say anymore.
There was another guy like that in these parts not too long ago. A coach by the name of Phil Jackson. And on more than one occasion recently, Bryant has reminded me and other longtime Los Angeles Lakers observers of the way Jackson became in his final years on the sideline.
Raw and somewhat bulletproof.
Take this from before Wednesday night's game as Bryant reflected on the lean seasons from 2005 to 2007: "I told Steve [Nash], 'You may have won an MVP, but I was playing with Smush Parker. He played with Barbosa and all those guys. I played with Smush and Kwame [Brown]. My goodness.
"Smush was the worst. He shouldn't have been in the NBA but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard so we let him walk on and had Tierre Brown back him up."
And there's more.
"Kwame, he's a great defensive player. He's one of the best defensive big men I've ever seen. But in terms of offense, he was challenged."
Reminded Kwame Brown was still in the league, Bryant laughed and said, "Somehow he talked Philly into giving him $7 million a year. Then they want to lock us out?"
In two minutes he'd managed to take shots at Lakers ownership, the new collective bargaining agreement and every other NBA owner. There might not be another player in the league who could speak truth to power with such blistering honesty. Outside of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, I can't think of any other coach who'd let it rip like this.
But this is Bryant's status in the game now.
You already think what you think of him. There's no bending it anymore. And really, the days when changing minds was important to him are long behind him.
This is his time now, to spend as he wants. To do as much as he can. To say what he wants to say. To finish on his own terms.
"Normally it's not weird for a guy to talk about [retirement] when a guy's pretty much got it made up in his mind that these are going to be his last two years," teammate Antawn Jamison said. "It's just weird that you hear it from Kobe. This is guy who is invincible. He never shows weakness, never shows his card at all.
"You wouldn't expect him, of all people, to say that at all. But this is the new Kobe. It's kind of fun, actually."
The comparisons to Michael and Magic don't seem bother him anymore. Bring up Shaquille O'Neal any time you want. Just say the name Smush Parker and it's like he's swinging off a tee. After Wednesday's game he even offered an opinion on the Yankees' decision to pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez in the ninth inning of their win over the Baltimore Orioles. "I don't like that," he said with the serious face of a concerned friend. "That's not good for the chemistry of the team. I'm going to have to call him."
There are people who will read Bryant's comments and find them cruel or mean-spirited. But read 'em again. The part about Brown being one of the best defensive big men he has ever seen. He meant every word.
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"He was really quick. He understood defensive concepts," Bryant said of Brown. "He might have actually showed Andrew [Bynum] a few things, especially on screen-and-roll coverages and one-on-one defense."
He didn't have to say any of it, but he was in the mood to say all of it, the good and the bad. How he really feels. What he really thinks.
When people get to the end of a career like Bryant's, they go one of two ways. Some hang on too long, refusing to accept any reality but the one they've known. Others find a peace with knowing they have a say in how things end, even if it doesn't always feel that way.
What Kobe Bryant has been saying over the past few days is pretty simple: He only wants to be Kobe Bryant for as long as he can be Kobe Bryant.
"In all honestly, he can play the next five or six years," Jamison said. "But maybe not at the level he wants to compete at, and to play for a championship-caliber team."
How will it all end? That's three years down the road. But you can bet it'll go however Bryant says it will.