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BOSTON – As the volume rises on the criticism of Kobe Bryant(notes), the chorus causes him to feel far more invigorated than invalidated. The call to deconstruct a championship legacy is a right of passage for a generational talent. The debate rages over his reputation as a clutch performer, over his propriety in five Los Angeles Lakers championships.
Pay no mind when he tells you he never listens to it because he's too much within the hysteria that surrounds him. Rest assured, he ingests it.
"People kind of get bored with things that I've done, so they try to find new ones to talk about or try to find numbers to justify certain things," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. "That's what happens when you win. I remember Magic and Michael [Jordan] going through similar things. Hey, the talk before was that I couldn't do it without Shaq. Well I did that. And then I did it again. Now it's something else. They're always going to come for something else.
"But I win. We win."
After the Los Angeles Lakers practiced on Wednesday, Bryant wore a black ski cap, ankle tape and a bemused grin in the bleachers of Emerson College. Here, he spit out his metaphors through the stark prism with which he sees the game. Bryant still believes this season will come down to big shots because it always does. He still believes that ball belongs in his hands because those moments have always belonged to him.
"If somebody had their life on the line, and they've got their options on who they want to save their life – tell me who you're going to pick?" Bryant asked. "You're going to look at the stats first?"
Eventually, Bryant will get the final word this basketball season. He'll have the ball, the game, the chance for the Lakers’ three-peat within his grasp. Perhaps it'll be here at the Boston Garden, where the Lakers play the Celtics on Thursday night. Perhaps it'll be in the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps it'll come against LeBron James(notes) and the Miami Heat.
Across the past four years, Bryant and these Lakers have been through a long, long grind. Long seasons, long pushes into the playoffs, into Games 6’s and 7’s of the NBA Finals.
His shoe off, Bryant's left ankle was exposed on the floor on Wednesday. The Lakers trainer had delivered several minutes of electric stimulation treatment and wrapped it. When asked the source of the problem, Bryant shrugged.
"Fifteen years," he said.
Fifteen years and that's taken a toll on his body, if not his spirit. Among his ankle, knees and fingers, Bryant and these Lakers are no longer constructed to run roughshod through the regular season. Nevertheless, it's February and the Lakers have still struggled to beat the league's elite. This is a season without a signature victory, with a dicey proposition of past performance as the greater indicator of future success.
"This is new for us because we normally have responded to the challenges of big games," Bryant said. "But so far this season, it hasn't been there for us. So yeah, it's a little uncomfortable. But let's keep in mind what the season is: It's about progression. It's about being there when the playoffs come around."
"In the end, it's my job to keep everyone focused on that compass."
For the Lakers, this doesn't mean wholesale change. There are no saviors coming, no big trades for big names. The core is unchanged and may still be undaunted. Here's a word you never used to hear out of Bryant, but one he has come to embrace in his thirtysomething years in Los Angeles.
"Patience," he said. "Teams need to have some patience, need to be kept together."
When it comes to lessening the load on his knees, he's had to practice it. As the season's grinded on, Bryant is pushing harder in practice. He's walking that delicate line between securing rest and delivering a daily tone of tenacity to his team. The Lakers limit his exposure to needless sprints, to the full-court pounding.
"I try to get a feeling of what the team needs," Bryant said. "The competiveness goes up when I'm playing with them – when I'm competing with them – in practice. But I've got to balance it out."
So Thursday at the Garden marks one of those nights when the Lakers need Bryant most, when there's no winning without greatness out of him. He loves to come to Boston and let the locals' loathing wash over him. The ferocity of these Eastern cities has always stirred him. Nothing makes him feel so alive as the hate hurtling down out of those rafters. Somewhere they'll be sure to crunch the numbers on Bryant, pushing him farther and farther above a generation of players still without a title. The chase for his sixth championship is something fierce, a final grind to graduate to the Rushmore of championships with Michael Jordan.
Bryant finally stood up on the eve of the Celtics game at the new Garden, his favorite road night of the season, and said: "Who knows, maybe I'll win seven or eight titles when it's all said and done – and they'll still be talking about that stuff. When Peyton Manning retires, he's going to hear the same thing. When Tom Brady retires, he'll hear the same thing.
"No one appreciates anything when it's going on."
His team could use a victory on Thursday night because Bryant is right. This kind of losing is uncomfortable for the Lakers, unfamiliar to the fiber of the two-time defending champions. Maybe there are players winning MVP awards in February, but no one's winning a title now. Kobe Bryant knows this: He's clutching a compass for this journey and the Lakers had best believe they need to follow him to a championship eternity.