Kobe takes pride in staying power
LOS ANGELES -- This was supposed to be a tribute to a unique accomplishment by Kobe Bryant ... except Kobe wasn't having any part of it.
With the All-Star Game back in Los Angeles, Bryant is the only player since the NBA-ABA merger to make two All-Star Game appearances in his home arena in a single city. When I brought that to his attention, he didn't seem impressed.
"Is that supposed to mean anything?" he said.
I added this: Of the 24 players who participated in the 2004 All-Star Game at Staples Center, only Bryant and six others have stayed with their same respective teams in the seven years that have elapsed. And of those six -- Paul Pierce in Boston, Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Andrei Kirilenko in Utah, Michael Redd in Milwaukee and Yao Ming in Houston -- only Pierce, Duncan and Nowitzki will be back at the All-Star Game.
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Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are still All-Stars, only now they're in Boston. Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal are in Boston, too, but no longer earn trips to the league's showcase game. Tracy McGrady has gone from one of the top scorers in the league to a point guard for lottery-bound Detroit. Some scattered across the globe in order to keep playing, Steve Francis to China and Allen Iverson to Turkey.
Seven years later, and only seven have stayed in the same place.
"Yeah," Bryant said, nodding.
Now it resonated with him. The rarity of staying power. He didn't care for the quirky two-time home-court thing.
"It would mean something if I played in, like, Minnesota," he said. "The All-Star Game coming back to L.A. means that I'm in a hot city.
"In terms of the years and the players that were playing then, and what I'm doing now, I take a lot of pride in that," Bryant said. "Because I've been able to stay at the top for a loooong, long, long time.
"I've seen the debates of Kobe-McGrady, Kobe-Iverson, you know what I mean? I've seen those generations come and go. And here I am now, [battling] LeBron [James], [Dwyane] Wade and people who were like, 10, when I was doing it. So I take a lot of pride in it."
Kobe wants to be a topic of discussion, not an answer to a trivia question. He's learned he can't control what people think about him, but he can force his way into their minds. Look at how he's barged into the room with the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain even though Bryant has only one Most Valuable Player award to put on the table. Sustained excellence makes the conversation mandatory, regardless of the actual accolades.
The first step toward entering the historical context is winning the contemporary battles, over and over again. Jordan once told me that Bryant is "a lot like myself as far as separating himself -- the way I wanted to separate myself from Clyde Drexler and everybody else."
Who knows whether Bryant ever read those words when I put them in the pages of the L.A. Times eight years ago. But when I brought them up to Bryant this month, he jumped on that concept of separation.
I've seen those generations come and go. And here I am now, [battling] LeBron [James], [Dwyane] Wade and people who were like, 10, when I was doing it. So I take a lot of pride in it.” -- Kobe Bryant
"That's part of the game," Kobe said. "And the way to do that is to win. I do it my way. They have their own way of doing things that may be more popular. But I go about it my own way, as Mike did it, too. And let the results speak for themselves.
"There's only two people that did it this way. We shoot first, he and I both. It's a street fight. We'll take on all five people we're going to scrap. And a lot of people don't understand that. That's why it's not the most popular way to go about doing it, but this is our way.
"That's how I've always been. That's why I don't think everybody can understand that. But this is who I am."
This is him: unapologetic, and about as honest and unfiltered as he gets. It might come off as arrogant when the words are typed out, but there is no humble way to assess your place among the elite, which is what Bryant was asked to do here. He was describing his greatness, not proclaiming it.
Don't get bent because he compared himself to Jordan. Again, he did so because I brought it up although this is the farthest I've ever seen him take the baton and run down the track with it. Normally, he scoffs and shuts down at the first mention of Jordan, even if Kobe brought it on himself by his mannerisms when he first came into the league and then his high level of play. In this case, I think hearing the commonalities Jordan saw between them caused Kobe to elaborate.
Jordan created the template, gave Kobe reason to believe this way could work. Before Jordan started his three-peat roll in 1991, it had been 20 years since a player won a scoring title and a championship in the same season. Shaq was the last to do it, in 2000, and Jordan remains the only guard to pull off that double feat. It's an unusual blueprint for a champion: build around a shooting guard who shoots a lot. Jordan took the most field goal attempts in the NBA nine times, including his six championship seasons. Bryant took the second-most shots in the league while winning championships the past two seasons and had the most attempts the three seasons prior to that. Bryant could match Jordan in volume but not accuracy; Kobe's best field goal percentage, 46.9 in 2001-02, wouldn't crack Jordan's top 10 shooting seasons.
See, that's why Bryant is wise to usually avoid the Jordan discussions, because he usually comes up short. But having watched both of them at their peaks, I'll say Kobe's competitive fire burns with just as much intensity as Jordan's -- exceeds it, even. Twice we've seen Jordan walk away from a winning team, even though it turned out he still had more basketball left in him. Bryant has gone nonstop, each championship only making him hungrier.
There's no other way to explain why Kobe is still among the elite, 15 years into his career, seven years after he played his previous All-Star "home" game. He can stake a claim as the best in the dozen years since Jordan played his last game in a Bulls uniform.
LeBron has emerged lately as a better player, but Kobe is the one racking up the rings. There's a subtle difference: LeBron has an aversion to losing, while Kobe has a need to win. I've seen plenty of games in which LeBron could have let his team pack it in for the night yet he refused and prevailed. He'd rather not lose. Bryant would give up a vital organ to win.
As incredible as LeBron has been, we still want to see more -- more aggressiveness toward the hoop, more low-post moves, more championships.
Say what you will about Bryant, over the course of his career, but he has more rings than nights on which you felt he gave less than his all. He doesn't leave clips in the chamber.
This was going to be a story about how Kobe has changed since 2004, but he blew that up, too.
"I'm the same way," he said.
He's still shoot-first. Even though Bryant has his deepest team since he was handed the reins in 2004, even though Phil Jackson is restricting Bryant's playing time to keep him fresher for the playoffs, Kobe's rate of 20 shots per 36 minutes is as high as usual.
His style is the same, only now his opinion carries more weight since he's an elder member of the team.
"I say these things to them, they're open to listening, as opposed to saying them to guys who are 10 years older," Kobe said.
Every year, every point, every championship has added weight to his words. Bryant's quotes hijacked this column, just by providing some rare insight into what he values in the game and how he sees himself. No, he wasn't sentimental about playing another All-Star Game at Staples Center, and no, he didn't say this, but something tells me the best part of having the game here means that when the best players in the NBA look up, they'll see his five championship banners, including the two he won without Shaq.
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