What drives the driven?
Kobe Bryant says winning is his only motivation, but some believe it's more than that
A late-November game against Golden State is as good an occasion as any to ask the question: What exactly motivates Kobe Bryant these days?
What gets the modern-day Mr. June, the guy who has had seven of his 14 seasons in the league finish in the NBA Finals, ramped up for a one-of-82 regular-season matchup against the perennial Pacific Division also-rans?
Does he just take joy in teaching the next generation what it takes to be great? He's already punished former USC products O.J. Mayo and DeMar DeRozan this season when the Lakers played the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, respectively. During the summer he'll play pickup with those guys and geek out in their shared love of the game, but when the season rolls around and the cameras are on, he does whatever he can to degrade them with his play.
The Warriors' Stephen Curry will be the latest young buck to get that treatment from Bryant.
But that can't possibly be enough.
Is he chasing the record books? Thirteen games into his 15th season, he's already set a few new ones -- embarking on the franchise record for most consecutive seasons played with the Los Angeles Lakers; becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 26,000 points; passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time minutes mark with the purple and gold.
"I don't know about them until they come up," Bryant said.
Yep, all of those records that make the number of bullet points on his Wikipedia page resemble a BB gun target practice sheet hardly cause him to bat an eyelash.
"I don't even know who even keeps track of all that stuff," he said. "Like all-time minutes, what the hell is that? It just means I played a lot. I think the honor in that comes in that I've been able to spend my entire career with one team which is rare to see nowadays. I don't try to get caught up too much in that stuff."
Derek Fisher, who came into Lakers camp with Bryant as a fellow rookie back in 1996, thinks that the accomplishments -- however trivial -- mean more to him than he lets on.
"I think they're meaningful," Fisher said. "They're milestones that very few people have ever accomplished or will ever have the chance to achieve, but I don't know how he measures it out -- whether it's ultimately just winning the titles or if some of these individual things kind of add up to be just as important. But they have to be special, I would say."
Fisher has said he figured out a long time ago that his fellow co-captain realized at a young age that he had the physical gifts to become the best ever to play the game.
Early on in his career, Bryant famously said, "What I'm doing right now, I'm chasing perfection," about his approach to the game.
But when you set your expectations that high, magnificent feats can become mundane. When you already have five rings, a gold medal, an MVP award and an 81-point game, it goes without saying that some things just don't register too high on your gratification radar.
For instance, did you know Bryant co-owns the record for most 3-pointers made in a single game (12) with Donyell Marshall? It rarely gets a mention in Bryant's long list of accomplishments, yet for Marshall, it stands as his most impressive feat as a pro.
"You know what, when I'm older and I'm like 70 years old or something like that, maybe then I'll get a little more sentimental," Bryant said. "But right now, I just want to win."
If Bryant and the Lakers win the championship this season, it won't only be a three-peat for the team and a Boston Celtics-tying 17th for the franchise, but it will be the sixth for Bryant.
So maybe it's the Michael Jordan draw.
I want to win six just like I wanted to win one, that's the object of playing. If I need motivation to say I wanted to get six because I wanted to have the same as Michael, to me, that's weak.” -- Kobe Bryant
Could it really be that a man who retired eight seasons ago and won his sixth and final championship in 1998, two years before Bryant won his first, is in the back of Bryant's mind every time he drives to the hoop? That he goes through every painful therapy session on his right knee and puts his 32-year-old body through another back-to-back just because he wants to be like Mike?
Or maybe it's because he wants to be better than Mike.
I recently spoke to somebody close to Bryant who has known him since he was a rookie. We talked about Bryant's jersey change from No. 8 to No. 24, which was never adequately explained. Bryant said something about it symbolizing his 24/7/365 work ethic. Others theorized that the NBA was behind it, urging him to switch it up to help sell more merchandise. A photo surfaced of him wearing a No. 24 practice jersey during his freshman season on the Lower Merion High School basketball team and some thought that it meant he was looking for a fresh start by returning to his roots.
The person I spoke to offered a different take.
"I think it stands for one more than Jordan," he said.
Bryant can't escape the Jordan comparisons. They both played shooting guard; their bodies during their primes were nearly identical in shape and size at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds; they both had a penchant for shining brightest when the utmost pressure was applied.
"I think that Kobe has some pretty good incentive, as if he ever needed any," NBA commissioner David Stern said before the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets on opening night, bringing up Jordan without ever actually saying the words "Michael Jordan."
Jordan has been a longtime supporter of Bryant's, but as Kobe's career is fast approaching Jordan's from a historical sense, MJ's competitive side is kicking in.
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If you read into Bryant's response about the all-time minutes mark, he frames the accomplishment by taking pride in only playing for one team. It's something that he can hold over Jordan, who unceremoniously ended his career ambling around the court with a Washington Wizards jersey on.
In an interview with USA Today during the preseason, Jordan was asked where Bryant should rank all time. Jordan placed him in the top 10 guards, balking at the opportunity to baptize him as one of the all-time best. It was viewed as a slight by Jordan, but people forget that just a few months earlier Jordan weighed in on the Bryant-LeBron James debate by saying that Bryant was the better player of the two.
"I think Michael Jordan has earned the right to voice his opinion on who he thinks the greatest players are in this league," said Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person, who played against Jordan and has become a mentor to Bryant in his two seasons with the team. "But at the same time, I think if you go back and really ask an honest opinion of all the great players who played before Kobe, that they would say his name has to be mentioned not only with the all-time great guards but as one of the all-time greatest players ever."
I had to ask Bryant what tying Jordan could mean. Six titles has to have some pull to it, right?
"I want to win six just like I wanted to win one, that's the object of playing," he said in a quiet moment after a shootaround in Denver earlier this month. "If I need motivation to say I wanted to get six because I wanted to have the same as Michael, to me, that's weak."
After Bryant beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7, he brought up his old adversary, Shaquille O'Neal, without prompting when asked what the title meant to him.
"It means I have one more than Shaq," Bryant said with a smile.
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Walking to the bus in Denver some five months after making that quip about O'Neal, Bryant said even though he made the observation, it was merely a byproduct of the series rather than something propelling him.
"That's just the effect of it, that's the end result of it," Bryant said. "We know that I have one more than Shaq, that wasn't something that was driving me. I wanted to win because that's just me. The end result is one more than Shaq."
Maybe everything he is doing on the court is just setting up his endeavors off of it. He has big plans for his VIVO Foundation, his personally backed charity organization that focuses on building connections across international lines.
Odds are he'll be long retired by the age of 40. That leaves him 30 or so years before he'll be that 70-year-old man who finally sits back and basks in his records.
"[What motivates him is] the thirst to be recognized as one of the greatest if not the greatest basketball player to ever lace up a pair of shoes," Person said. "He's definitely knocking on that door of the upper echelon of players. So, I think that's what continually drives him -- the challenge of wanting to be the guy when the game of basketball is mentioned, that his name is called first."
There will be plenty of time for him to round out his life away from the game, but he'll always be ultimately known for the time he spent as a basketball-wired machine.
"I don't need that stuff. I really don't. I'm already wired," Bryant said. "For whatever reason, I don't need motivation. I'm good to go."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.