NEW ORLEANS -- Kobe Bryant walked into the makeshift media room in the bowels of the Smoothie King Center with the same swagger and undeniable presence that he has mastered during his 18 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
He still has that boyish smile that makes you instantly think of his days at Lower Merion High School, but now 35 and battling injuries, Bryant is creeping toward that time no athlete ever wants to think about. An Achilles' injury and now a bad left knee have shelved him for a good majority of this season, most likely for the rest of it. Though he vows to be back, who knows when and for how long.
"It's coming slowly," said Bryant, who has played in 14 All-Star Games and is the all-time leading scorer in the showcase with 280 points. "I'm optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements, once I get to LA and do a couple of follow-ups and then go from there. But it's been a slow process."
He was voted a starter again for this year's game, but was relegated to watching. That could be something that he will be doing a lot of in the near future.
"That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty," Bryant said. "Is this it sort of thing. Are my best days behind me sort of thing. And to have all those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that and not succumbing to that is part of the challenge. It's really the biggest challenge, saying well, maybe this is the end. But then again, maybe it's not. But it's not the mind that wears down, it's the body. So my job is to try to keep my body as fresh as possible, keep it as strong as possible so it can be right there with my mind in terms of how I can execute things."
He has been around long enough to know the ins and outs of the league and can now look honestly at himself as a player.
"I'm a difficult person to deal with," Bryant said of being a teammate. "For people who don't have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck because I'm going to drag you into the gym every single day. If you need to be drug in, then that's what I'm going to do. And for players that have that level of commitment, (I'm) very, very easy. And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level. But if we don't have that commitment, man, I'll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with, no question about it."
That he won't be playing much longer is obvious. But being around the best players this weekend and having the competitive spirit that he does makes Bryant eager to return.
"When you play in an All-Star Game, that means you're one of the best players in the world, so it's obviously a big goal of mine to be there (again)," Bryant said. "But it's tough coming here, though, because normally when you come the competitive juices are already flowing. Now it's kind of looking at it from a different perspective. But you also get a chance to soak it all in a little bit more and kind of sit back and watch and observe, which has its own fun element to it."
That's a positive way of looking at his future, but how will the retirement eventually come?
"I don't really want the rocking chair before the game," he laughed. "That would drive me crazy. I'll probably just pop up and just vanish."
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