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"The way this team is, we need another facilitator, another passer," says Bryant. "I also think that some of our guys, maybe because they're young, were worried about their scoring opportunities"—attention, Dwight Howard—"so I think seeing me sacrifice the way I have, maybe they will think, 'I shouldn't be concerning myself with touches and shots. If he's averaging 30 and he's willing to drop, I'm willing to sacrifice too.' That was the more important message." That is truly optimistic thinking, but Kobe is sticking with it.
In his 17th season the 34-year-old Bryant remains the resolute loner-warrior: aggressive, impatient, tougher than a slab of diner pot roast. He has blown his top at teammates, particularly Howard; at other times, when an explosion was expected, he's turned into Conciliatory Kobe. You can never be sure what you'll get, and he likes it that way.
At practice following his 1-for-8 shooting night in that win over the Suns, Bryant stayed on the court for an extra 45 minutes hoisting face-up and turnaround jumpers, sometimes getting a pass from an assistant coach, sometimes tossing the ball in the air, catching it himself, pivoting and shooting, his form precise every time. "I could just reach out and block one of those," a reporter told Bryant as he neared the baseline where the media horde awaited him.
"I got 30,000 reasons you'd never get close to blocking that s---," Bryant said, referring to his 30,000-plus NBA points, which rank fifth on the alltime list. He smiled quickly and kept moving, never missing a beat.
Later, as he toweled down and sat for an interview, he was asked if he had a certain shooting routine.
"Absolutely," he said. "I go from spot to spot. Today I quit when I made 400 shots."
How do you know?
"What do you mean, How do I know? I know because I counted them."
He no longer stands on the top rung of the NBA ladder, a place held by LeBron James, with Kevin Durant right behind him. Bryant probably knows that, but whether he could admit it is another question. Self-awareness and self-confidence wage war within high achievers, as they do in the complex package that is Kobe. But he is still awfully damn good, probably the third-best player in the league, blessed with a body that can absorb punishment, a will that enables him to play through that pain, and a background that prepared him to dominate not only athletically but also fundamentally.
"I feel fortunate that I was over in Italy [from ages six to 13] when AAU basketball [got big] over here," says Bryant. "They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn't affect me. Over there, it wasn't about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts—all of those things. Look at Pau Gasol. Look at the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball."