As he gears up for his 19th NBA season and to bounce back from an injury that caused him all but six games last year, Kobe Bryant begrudgingly admits to the obvious even as he refuses to concede to little else.
“So when I hear pundits and people talk, saying, ‘well, he won’t be what he was.’ Know what? You’re right,” said the L.A. Lakers star, who regionally graces the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. “I won’t be. But just because something evolves, it doesn’t make it any less better than it was before.”
If the Lakers are to rebound from the depths of the tumble that saw them post the organization’s worse record (27-55) in history last season and miss the playoffs for just the franchise’s sixth time, the Lakers will need that kind of resolve and more this year. But even beyond that, they’ll need Kobe Bryant to be Kobe Bryant in substance even if not style.
But after 18 seasons and nearly 46,000 career-minutes, how fair is it for the Lakers, or even the 36-year-old Bryant himself, to demand of his mind and body the levels he’s always maintained?
While losing Pau Gasol, the Lakers added only Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer in summer free agency, hardly enough to make for a legitimate run in the brutally competitive Western Conference. The team also landed former Kentucky star Julius Randle with the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft, but who can predict with even level of supreme certainty just when he might be ready to regularly contribute?
And so, it all falls on Bryant, who, in the name of being Kobe Bryant, is more than willing to assume all the weight. With five NBA titles, two Finals MVP awards and 16 All-Star Game selections already in tow, Bryant insists he is now as driven as he has ever been by the singular mission of shutting down all the naysayers.
“I f—— love that story,” Bryant told SI of the legend of how Michael Jackson in 1982 fueled his thirst to have the best-selling album of all-time and motivated himself to produce Thriller by listening to the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which then held that glorious distinction.
Not even Bryant knows for certain how much he has left or how much longer he can go, but the ever feisty legend is sure about the way he wants to go out, whenever or wherever that time might come.
“If you boo me for 18, 19 years, boo me for the 20th,” said Bryant in raining on the growing trend that sees retiring stars like Derek Jeter feted in their final go-around to every rival stadium. “That’s the game, man.”
And it’s vintage Kobe Bryant to play it on his own terms and in his own way.