As Kobe Bryant continues his pursuit for a sixth championship ring, he hasn't hesitated to discuss his future in the NBA nor sidestepped the inquiries regarding Dwight Howard's future with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe continues to confuse the hell out of us.
Though the Black Mamba is no stranger to discussing retirement, the timetable for such a (dreaded) occurrence is something he has failed to concretely divulge.
Bryant not-so-subtly delved into the topic once again in a candid interview with the Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers:
"I find myself talking sometimes and I can't believe what I just said," he says with a hearty laugh. "Realistically I have only one year left, so I'm trying to enjoy myself."
One year. That pinpoints Bryant's retirement after next season, when he'll be 35 going on 36. For those keeping count, that's roughly four years shy of 40, the age at which the Mamba once stated he would play until.
Assuming—which is hard to do—this isn't another one of Bryant's maniacal ploys, it only increases the urgency behind his current quest. If he's serious, he has but one more season to win that sixth title and further cement his already illustrious history.
But is it a misunderstood history as well?
Bryant is widely (universally?) considered selfish. In certain circles, they wouldn't hesitate to argue that he's a team cancer, that he's someone who championships have been won in spite of, not directly because of.
Clad with a selfless transformation, such narratives have been forced to change (sort of) in the wake of an even more enigmatic Kobe:
"We're human beings, so we're complicated," Kobe says.
We have already spent the last hour discussing his obsessive intensity, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal, his stifling inner circle and his belief he can pass the Lakers into the playoffs.
"I just happened to grow in front of everybody and a lot happened," Kobe says. "Maybe one day in like 15 years or so some people will come to realize we didn't quite get him when he was playing."
Truthfully, I doubt we'll ever fully understand the equivocality of Bryant. His is a story that will probably never be completely told.
Yet what we do understand and have always comprehended is that Bryant is about winning first and foremost. Stat lines be damned, Kobe would gladly trade in thousands of his 30,000-plus points for any number of additional shiny rings.
Competitiveness of that degree never yields; it never completely leaves. Which is why his latest retirement musings are of so much significance.
Readily admitting that the end is imminent is a subtle acknowledgement that he's ready to walk away from the game with what he has. It's a shrouded indication that Bryant believes he has done all he can, given all he has to offer:
"I didn't have time to deal with nonsense," he says. "I had quite a bit of recovery going on, so I didn't have time to deal with negative stuff.
"I've taken the reins off now. I'm more open, hence Twitter. I'm at peace."
And that "peace" encompasses the current state of his Lakers.
Sitting three and a half games outside of the Western Conference playoff bubble, all does not appear well in Hollywood. This was a team that was supposed to win championships. Not a championship, but championships.
Instead, they've toiled with obscurity, implosion and been left to fret over the potential departure of Howard, Bryant included.
Though he initially proclaimed he wasn't concerned about Howard's future in Los Angeles, Kobe admitted to the exact opposite:
"Are you worried Howard might leave, jeopardizing a chance to win another ring, if he's not a fan of Mike D'Antoni's coaching?"
"Yeah, a little bit," Kobe says.
"Have you asked Dwight if he's going to stay?"
"I want him thinking about being our defensive stopper so we can ride him into the playoffs," Kobe says.
Certain someones might take Bryant's admittance as a sign of humanization and, therefore, weakness. But that's not what it is. It's him being all he has ever been—honest. Only this time, his honesty is laced with that serenity he previously alluded.
Is he worried that Howard will leave?
Of course he is. Even if he has just one year left, he wants that year to be as competitive a campaign as possible. Dwight's departure jeopardizes just that.
Yet he's not about to cudgel the panic button.
Because he believes. He believes in this team, its ability to retain Howard and its potential as a contender. He wouldn't be at "peace" if he didn't.
So while he's not about to pretend he's not concerned about Howard's future, he's not about lose his composure over a "what if" type of conflict.
Nor is he about to throw anyone, including Mike D'Antoni, under the bus for Los Angeles' current struggles:
"Is D'Antoni the right coach?"
There's a long pause. "I don't think a coach becomes the right coach until he wins a championship. I don't think Erik Spoelstra was the right coach in Miami until he won. Phil Jackson was just some hippie coaching in Chicago with this weird offense."
"Can D'Antoni win a championship?"
"The question for me, is he capable of figuring this puzzle out? I think he has the brains to do so."
Kobe isn't about to point fingers in an attempt to surmise the driving force behind Howard's potential departure. Not when he believes that the potential problem (D'Antoni) is actually part of the solution.
Years of coping with such unpleasantries have undoubtedly hardened Bryant to the rifts they can create, to the disunity they could promote. And yet, Bryant's never been at peace before, why now? In the midst of one of the most tumultuous seasons of his career, why he is so content? Why is he now so supportive of Howard, of D'Antoni and even Pau Gasol?
Because that's what it's going to take to win:
To win, he contends, he must set an example.
"This team needed it," he says. "In the meeting we had in Memphis we were talking about doing things that maybe we're not what we do best. What I do best is shoot, maybe passing is the best way for us to win now.
"What I'm doing now is being selfish. I'm trying to help the team because I want to win a championship."
This isn't a team that can butt heads and still win. This isn't the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal era. It's a time when Bryant needs to make the sacrifices, when he must preserve the immediate future of this team by adapting to it, not the other way around.
Staring down the barrel of retirement, that appears to be a sacrifice Kobe is more than willing to make:
When we move our chat to the end of his career, I ask him how he will feel if he doesn't win another ring.
"I can't see that happening," he says.
We argue about what is sacrificed in the pursuit of always having to win, and he says, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts.
"It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization."
Is that why he's at "peace?" Because he believes that sixth ring is in his future? That it's inconceivable he won't win?
Or is he simply at "peace" because he knows that, championship or not, he's going to leave on his own terms, at the top of his game?
He says he hasn't decided when he will retire, but he knows fans won't see him fade as they did when Michael Jordan played with Washington.
"You didn't have to see that version of Michael. He retired at 36 in Chicago at the top of his game. There's a not a chance you'll see me [like that]."
Perhaps this has more to do with Bryant finally being comfortable in his own skin. He's content with the players he's become, the one he's still willing to be and nothing can change that. Not Gasol's unhappiness, Howard's potential departure or even D'Antoni's system.
Those are concerns of Bryant's, but they don't define him. And although he appears both ready to leave with what he's got and continue his trek toward a sixth ring, he's finally taking some of the ambivalence out of his self-imposed equation.
This isn't Kobe attempting to stave off retirement in an attempt to preserve his time in the spotlight or prolong his career in hopes of proving himself any further.
He now knows who he is and how he'd like to be remembered.
"As a winner and overachiever," he said. "A guy who worked and played hard like he was the 12th man on the roster."
A winner, overachieve and diligent athlete who used the better part of two decades coming to "peace" with who he is and the public perception of who he is.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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