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Kobe’s greatness won’t let him quit

by Sam Smith

Well, at least we know Kobe Bryant isn’t retiring.

One of the underlying stories of this NBA season — and, of course, it had to involve the Los Angeles Lakers, as almost everything did — was Bryant saying how with the final season of his contract in 2013-14 that might be his last in the NBA.

Of course, that was ridiculous to anyone who watched the comings and goings of Michael Jordan, Bryant’s mythical white whale who Bryant has been trying to catch for years, in titles and even earlier in his career when he chose the No. 24 to be one more than Jordan’s 23.

Bryant feigned innocence when that was suggested.

I give Bryant that. Unlike many who shrunk and ran from the Jordan comparisons, like Grant Hill and Vince Carter, Bryant embraced and challenged them like no else.

His critics liked to say he would never be Jordan, whatever that means. But no one has been more like Michael in desire, determination and difficulty to get along with, though Jordan knew how to portray it better with the media.

I was having lunch with Bryant one day (sorry about the lack of a prior name dropping warning) and I asked him about chasing the Jordan legend.

He gave me the best answer I ever heard, though I know he didn’t believe it.

He said Jordan was like an urban legend, like the Yeti, that the way everyone portrayed it Jordan never missed a shot, game-winning or otherwise.

Bryant was right about that. People like their legends untarnished and unreachable, and Bryant understood that even as no one tried harder.

And like Jordan, what enables you to become a player like that, Bryant has that maniacal desire that takes you beyond rational thought and action, and in a sense you are lost without that quest.

It has been so, sadly, really, with Jordan. He left the NBA twice, finally to return well after no one imagined he would or could and had the boxer’s career ending with the Washington Wizards.

Yet, even at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Jordan warned that, watch out, he may not be done at 50. And then 50 came in February, and the watch was on.

I received numerous calls from national media as something of the unofficial Jordan expert from writing about his entire career about whether he would return. They were taking him seriously.

Even I had to demur.

Guys like Jordan and Bryant are different. Greatness isn’t normal. There are many people with great skills, but only a few who rise above. There always were players who could shoot better, jump higher, run faster than Jordan.

So how was he so much better?

How has Bryant been?

It’s that insatiable and incredible drive that borders on insanity, a need, almost, to succeed and conquer that sets very few apart.

Most don’t have it or even understand it as it borders on abnormal behavior. Perhaps uncontrolled. But channeled it can lead one to fabulous heights. It probably explains away a lot of what we call genius.

The most difficult part is it never lets go even when your body inevitably must. It’s why we see so many famous and champion boxers in that sad decline. Theirs is a physical debilitation when they stay too long.

For people like Jordan and Bryant, it is more mental and cerebral.

There was an unusual and rare interview with Jordan with ESPN.com at the time of his 50th birthday in February. He rarely lets media into his life, but he openly talked about wishing he still could play again.

Again, after all this time. He was even in training to try to get closer to his playing weight. He was serious.

Similarly with Bryant. He teased about quitting after next season, but those who knew who he was shrugged. But then when Bryant suffered one of the most feared injuries of athletes, the dreaded torn Achilles, he couldn’t wait to start over.

Bryant has been undergoing a public metamorphoses in the last year or so.

He hasn’t been most of his career what you would call the most approachable of players. But in the past year friends have said he’s become more concerned with his legacy and how he is viewed, and he doesn’t want the negative that was attached to him after his trial in Colorado and falling out with Shaquille O’Neal.

So Bryant’s appearances in every city have been a parade of media events and interviews. Plus, Bryant has taken hold of social media with his characteristic zeal and was sending messages even from his operating room after his surgery.

By the time he came out of surgery he was sending messages to teammates regarding strategy and motivation toward the last games of the season and making the playoffs. Hardly sounding like a man who has another passion in life, or at least to the extent of basketball.

And why should he go?

Why should anyone who loves what they do and is good at it?

Which gets to the question of whether the Lakers would want him back. It would seem obvious they would. Though hanging over the entire episode is the issue of amnesty, an exception built into the last labor contract to allow a team to remove a player’s salary from it’s luxury tax bill.

The Lakers’ can be substantial if they re-sign Dwight Howard, which is their priority.

Bryant makes about $30 million next season as the only player other than Jordan to ever hit that level.

So what if he were out for 12 months?

The Lakers could use the amnesty and save perhaps $50 million in luxury tax penalties, though Bryant still would be paid. Though sort of off the books.

But you never expect the expected with people like Bryant. He’s played these last few years with injuries that would have had many out weeks or months. He says he’ll be ready for next season.

Who is doubting him other than doctors?

And the way amnesty works, if it’s used on Bryant he could play for another team, which might not go over that well when he is dunking on Howard.

I don’t expect Paul Gasol and his approximately $20 million salary back with the Lakers next season. Probably not Steve Nash.

But I do expect to see Bryant sooner and more often than many suggest. It would be no other way with Kobe Bryant. And I’m glad. The great ones don’t come along that often.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”