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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Kobe Bryant's self motivation keeps him on track towards a place amongst basketball's highest echelon.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Never satisfied, Kobe continues to chase down NBA's greatest


Posted Feb 18 2011 10:47AM

LOS ANGELES -- One of Kobe Bryant's sisters got married in 1999, and the bridal party placed bets the morning of the wedding on which softy would be the first to cry. Kobe, the best man, put his $5 on a cousin. He knew others had money riding on him.

Then Joe Bryant ruined everything. No one picked the father of the bride, but there he was, tearing up while walking the aisle, a confirmed sighting and everything. Big upset. Kobe was near the alter when he spotted defeat, and while fighting back tears himself at this huge family moment, he thought: "Oh, no. Dammit. I lost."

There are no days off from competition in the mind of demon worker Kobe Bryant. His place in the present-day NBA is set -- five-time champion, Olympic gold medalist, cutthroat closer, defensive star, still an MVP candidate at age 32 -- so instead his sights are set on the ghosts, the immortals. It's been that way this season in particular, as he has moved from 12th on the career scoring list to eighth since December and could get as high as sixth by the start of the playoffs.

The official, predictable line from Bryant is that the individual glory is not a motivation compared to team success: "Um, not really motivation. It's kind of cool how it all shakes out. I've been playing for a while and scoring a lot of points. So I just think it's pretty cool. But in terms of a motivational thing, it's the ring count that really gets me going."

At the very least, then, he notices. Of course he does. He was damning defeat on a wedding bet. The mega-competitor needs to take on history -- not just the Celtics and Heat -- this season.

Sunday evening in his adopted hometown, Bryant will play in another All-Star game. This time it is at his personal Mt. Olympus, aka Staples Center, where his historic competition will literally be looking down on him. It's the home of the Lakers and the galaxy of retired jerseys on the wall. Bryant obviously goes up there some day, needing only to decide whether he wants No. 8 or No. 24 to hang amongst his fellow forevers.

Jerseys are one thing -- statues are another. Make the Hall of Fame, make the jersey wall. But the statues outside of Staples have become the next level, where simply being enshrined in Springfield, Mass., does not make for automatic qualification. Only Magic Johnson, broadcaster Chick Hearn and, as of Thursday, Jerry West have been so honored. Wayne Gretzky, from the Kings -- a Staples co-tenant -- and former boxer Oscar De La Hoya, a local product who had promotional deals with Staples, are likewise uniquely celebrated as Los Angeles icons.

Bryant is expected to get a statue after retirement as well, according to one person familiar with the thinking of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are also likely to be put in the special category, at a later date. But being fitted for the ultimate of Lakers honors outside the home court doesn't really matter.

Except that it does.

"I would say yes," said Derek Fisher, the Laker who knows him best, of Bryant being conscious of a legacy still being shaped.

"I think he has a healthy amount of respect for the history of the game and the accomplishments of the greatest players to ever play the game. I'd say it's something that he thinks about on a regular basis."

Because it's something else to accomplish.

"For Kobe, I think it's singularly about the competition, the desire to push himself to possibly be the greatest to ever play," Fisher said. "I think he has always believed that. Not so much, other than championship trophies, about the statues and the awards and accomplishments as far as other people crowning him the best. I think it's really about his belief that he can be the best or one of the two or three greatest players to play. There isn't anything that can really diminish the passion he has for getting to that level."

"Well," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, "you have to measure up against somebody. I'm sure when Wilt [Chamberlain] came into the league, the center position, there was nobody like him. I think he lost interest toward the later part of his career. Maybe because he did everything completely off the charts as an individual. Maybe he had nobody to shoot for, except for maybe George Mikan and Bill Russell to some degree, but Bill Russell was not the individual player that Wilt was.

"When you talk to people about great centers, half the time is spent on Wilt and his individual accomplishments because they stand alone as off the charts. I think Kobe's individual accomplishments stand alone. But you're even further identified as one of the greats if at the same time you win championships, and certainly he's done that."

Bryant has always thought about his legacy, believing firmly from an early age that he would end up among the legends. There was such a certainty in his mind that he would sit in class in elementary school, sign a piece of paper, hand it to another student and tell them to hold on to it for 20 years. It would be worth something one day.

The only misjudgment was that it didn't take 20 years. Drafted at age 17, Kobe began his rookie season at 18 and became a champion at 21. Soon he would need new measurements, beyond the annual mountain climb of a title pursuit. He would need the competition of new historical comparisons. He would need the ghosts.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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