NBA commentary: Kobe Bryant knows he's nearing the dusk of his career
El Segundo, Calif.
The will to win has gotten all the glory, but the wish to work has been Kobe Bryant's backbone.
For so long, that work ethic has been the immovable object behind his unstoppable force.
Mastering footwork, studying video, lifting weights ... whatever there is to do, Bryant has done it. These days, there's more work than ever.
Bryant's ball-handling has suffered in recent seasons because of an array of hand injuries, for example. So on Tuesday, long after regular Lakers practice, it was over and over: a between-the-legs dribble from left to right, then simultaneous jab step and head bob to fake a drive then rising suddenly up for the jumper.
After a while, the routine was expanded: An extra dribble back through the legs from right to left was introduced before rising up to shoot. There has to be a counter, always a counter. It's the only right way to prepare, you know.
Bryant's wife has long called him a simple "workaholic," as if he's some pencil pusher, yet that's what the great ones in any field must be. They can't bear to settle for anything less than their own lofty standards. Supervisors or timesheets don't really exist only a code of self-satisfaction that is met when self-improvement is attained.
To understand Bryant's career, you have to appreciate the work and in terms of that career, it's no longer 6 a.m. at the track anymore. However many times he has risen to run before the birds see the sun, Bryant is nearing dusk, he knows, and he also now knows what it is that will lead him to walk away from his greatness.
It's the grind of the work. It's the mental drain of that code, which provides such deep fulfillment but very limited freedom to live.
"Whether it's a knee injury or an ankle injury, whatever it is, you make those adjustments physically," Bryant said. "But the mentality of preparing, year in and year out. It has been 17 years, and every offseason has been more work than the regular season. It's a lot of work."
Those aren't the words of a finely tuned machine or a snake ever-ready to strike. Here is a 34-year-old man who has matured enough to appreciate what he has done.
As much as the will-to-win part of him does want more, especially now that the Lakers are so well set up with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, Bryant is proud to declare himself a winner already when it comes to the consistency of his long-term work.
"Everybody who has come before me, they've all kind of had to endure the same thing," Bryant said. "Some of them retired. M.J. [Michael Jordan] retired a couple of times. Just 'cause it's a lot. It's a lot.
"I mean, I've been playing 17 years straight. That's a long run, not taking any breaks."
In that sense, Bryant feels no shame if it takes him more tries to win as many times as Jordan's six. Bryant is doing something Jordan didn't and couldn't do.
Through all sorts of drama and personal crises, so many daring shots and criticized misses, Bryant has persevered. He has taken care of his business serving his sport just as much as his self-interest.
It has only happened by staying strong in mind, always a precursor to staying strong in body.
Bryant declared Tuesday this is the best he has felt physically since 2006 though he said the same thing three years ago and he's excited about gaining his latest extra edge from lifestyle modifications regarding diet and stretching.
That optimism is a hallmark of his work ethic, always believing something good will come from trying. But consider the warning sounded for the day when Bryant doesn't want to try anymore or more accurately, wants to try something else.
He wouldn't specify his plans, but he said: "When the buzzer goes off and it's time to move on to the next part of my career or new career, you don't want to have to start from scratch. You kind of want to be building that already, which I've been doing."
Two years ago he was already floating the idea of playing out only this contract. Two years from now, that contract expires.
For what it's worth, Bryant is on track to pass Jordan on the all-time scoring chart by then. But that timeline just so happens to jibe with Bryant's will to win, too.
The Lakers have these next two seasons of lavish, league-high payroll before they intend to drop down below the NBA's luxury-tax plateau for both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons really their only option to avoid the incredibly severe financial penalties written into the new collective bargaining agreement.
The Kobe who plays to win rings understands where that would leave him.
But the Kobe who must work so hard to master his craft might be ready to leave anyway.
He won't cruise to the finish. He won't contrive faux challenges.
It's his code, and he will live by it.
"When I'm done," he said, "I'm done."