LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant(notes) is pursuing his sixth NBA championship, a benchmark that would match Michael Jordan’s career total and immediately launch a debate about how the Los Angeles Lakers star measures up to the league’s greatest player ever.
Jordan, however, doesn’t sound quite ready to allow Bryant to stand toe to toe with him.
"He is always going to be within the conversations of some of the greatest players who've played, by the time he is finished,” Jordan recently told USA Today about Bryant. “Where does he rank among those, if you are talking about positions? If you are talking about guards, I would say he has got to be in the top 10."
Not top five. And certainly not top two.
Bryant didn’t take Jordan’s comments as an insult.
“It’s an accurate statement,” Bryant said. “I’m definitely one of the top 10 guards. It could mean two, it could mean one, it could mean four or five. I’m definitely one of the top thousand. Look, I know how he feels about me.
“There have been a lot of great guards to play the game. For me to sit here and say, ‘He should have said top five,’ that’s disrespectful to the other guards that I’ve watched.”
When asked whether Jordan’s words were motivating, Bryant said: “That stuff doesn’t get to me. You can’t motivate me or take me to a place that I’m not already at.”
[Photos: See Kobe Bryant in preseason action]
So where does Bryant think he ranks amongst the NBA’s best?
“I can’t put myself in that position – I really can’t,” Bryant said.
Bryant, however, is comfortable revealing how he hopes to be remembered after his career is over. He entered the NBA in 1996 as a No. 13 pick. At that time, only former Lakers general manager Jerry West had visions of Bryant becoming a superstar.
“I’ve always been comfortable as a kid growing up to think that when my career is over, I want them to think of me as an overachiever despite the talent that I have,” Bryant said. “To think of me as a person that’s overachieved, that would mean a lot to me. That means I put a lot of work in and squeezed every ounce of juice out of this orange that I could.
“Hopefully, they perceive me as person who did whatever he had to do to win above all else. Above anything. Above stats. … If they say that about me I’ll be happy.”
Bryant claims he isn’t motivated by trying to match Jordan, but he does respect the elite company he would join by winning his sixth championship. Only 13 NBA players have more than five NBA titles. No Laker has ever won more than five titles with the franchise.
“I don’t look at it as motivation,” said Bryant, who hasn’t talked to Jordan since the Lakers played at Charlotte last season. “I’ve never given it thought that I wanted to get six to catch Michael. His six and my six are different. That’s not to say that his were more challenging than mine because I had to play a different role and do something out of character my first three. They’re just different.
“It steps into a territory that only a select few have ever been to. I understand. That’s what special to me, that I’m this fortunate to have this opportunity. So, let’s try to make the most of it.”
Most of the offseason attention has been on the Miami Heat adding LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) to play with Dwyane Wade(notes). But the Lakers also could be better after signing Steve Blake(notes), Matt Barnes(notes) and Theo Ratliff(notes).
“The excitement is warranted,” Bryant said. “Obviously, the trophy remains with us. [Other teams] have made steps in the right direction to try to take it from us. That’s what makes it exciting. The hype is warranted. But for us, it’s business as usual.”
The Lakers’ biggest concerns center on the health of Bryant and center Andrew Bynum(notes), who both had knee surgery. Bynum isn’t expected to be back until the end of November, at the earliest. Bryant struggled in his first four preseason games, averaging 10 points on just 22 percent shooting, before scoring 19 points in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Utah Jazz.
“I’m pleased with my development,” Bryant said. “I feel like I’m getting better every day.”
For now, Bryant isn’t worried about the Heat. Or Jordan. He’s just hungry to chase another championship.
“For me, the special comes in the challenge of it,” he said. “That’s why last year was so special for me because we were like down and out. I remember doing a press conference when we were down 3-2 [in the NBA Finals] and everyone was saying nail-in-the-coffin stuff. That’s what makes it special for me.”