Kobe Bryant: Winning a Title Without Shaq Was an ‘Obsession’

Kobe Bryant (24) gives a thumbs up following a video presentation of his career during the first quarter of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Bryant will play the final game of his NBA career on Wednesday. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)
Kobe Bryant (24) gives a thumbs up following a video presentation of his career during the first quarter of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Bryant will play the final game of his NBA career on Wednesday.
(Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USA TODAY Sports)

There will be a day when Kobe Bryant will wake up and it will finally hit home that he is no longer a basketball player.

With the last act of his NBA journey approaching on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Lakers star smiles as he considers the things he will miss. The fans, the locker room camaraderie, the familiar faces at the Staples Center — Bryant begins to run through a list and then stops himself.

“But nothing supersedes the game,” he said.

That is Bryant in a nutshell, a competitor with a fierce desire to win when he entered the league as a precocious teenager and possessing the same quality as he departs it, even at 37 and with a failing team.

The game is what he will miss most because that is what has provided him the chance to win, 82 times per year and more, for close to two decades.

In a wide-ranging interview for the USA TODAY Sports series “The Kobe Files,” Bryant talked with Steve Springer, the author of five Los Angeles Lakers books, about his favorite memories. All of them relayed his insatiable quest for achievement.

“I just love to play,” Bryant said. “I just kept trying to figure out different ways to play through things and you know it was basic logic to me if there was any reason the injury wouldn’t get worse, I’m going to play through it.

“If it’s an injury that’s just painful and I can navigate the pain then I will be fine, I will play.  But I didn’t play with things that would lead to career ending things.”

Hardly a fitting end

The end of his career will come at Staples on Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz, one more portion of effort squeezed from a broken down body.

There will be tributes and presentations and probably some tears shed. With the Lakers season having long ago fallen into disarray, perhaps it should have been different. Would a final tilt at the title or even a shot at a playoff place have been a more fitting way to go? Or maybe this is how it is supposed to be, a chance to say farewell and finally begin to appreciate past successes without being obsessed with new ones?

“I’m thankful,” Bryant said. “I’m not sad at all. I left no stone unturned, I gave everything to the game for 20 years in the NBA and more before that. So I feel very thankful to be able to play this game this long.”

Bryant would love to have matched or bettered Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships, finishing with five, but as the finale closes in, there is no sense that he would have done things differently.

He values the Lakers’ 2010 title the most, coming as it did against a Boston Celtics team stacked with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, more so than any other trophy or the 81 points he dropped on the Toronto Raptors in 2006.

“(2010) is the one I will treasure,” Bryant said. “(Boston was) a heck of a team and we were down 3-2. I remember being in the locker room after (Game 5) in Boston and being there with Derek Fisher and Pau (Gasol) and Lamar Odom and the guys and I just started busting out laughing. We found humor in being down 3-2, that is a moment I will never, ever forget.”

Bryant is glad he pushed for the Lakers to improve and restock after the barren years that followed Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, even if he accepts he didn’t necessarily go about it the right way. He threatened to leave, was critical of the organization, but ended up staying and adding a couple more championships in 2009 and ’10.

“I was pissed,” Bryant said, when quizzed about the lean years. “It was fury because I had to win the championship without Shaquille, I just had to. It was just the challenge. That was just an obsession.”

Bryant is a different kind of character, even among athletes. He was never quite the same after his Achilles injury in 2013 but instead of offering winces and regrets he laughs when reminded of it.

Playing against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant crashed to the floor and could feel his snapped Achilles inching up the back of his calf.

“I was trying to figure out a way to play with it,” he said. “I did shoot the free throws. To me that was a no-brainer.”

A future media mogul?

Given that he has repeatedly stated he has no plans to coach or be a general manager in the NBA, what next?

There is no doubt that media, and multimedia, will play a significant role in Bryant’s post-basketball life. He has become a sophisticated thinker and likens the evolution of the industry to the growth in himself.

He was a boy when he entered the league, brash and finding his way, with thoughts of a rap career that turned out to be one of his less sound decisions.

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SOURCE: USA Today – Martin Rogers