Kobe stands upon foundation for success

LOS ANGELES – Just how grateful are you, Kobe Bryant(notes) was asked in a private moment, that the words, “Free-agent summit” will never need to come out of your mouth?

“Very grateful,” Bryant said, stopping on the walk to his car to shake his head in laughter. “Very, very grateful.”

On the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Bryant returned with a question of his own: “What exactly is a free-agent summit?”

The one thing Bryant truly cared about was this: He isn’t interested in becoming the NBA’s Mr. July, but Mr. June. The circus has long ago left his life, and he’s most grateful it belongs to everyone else now. Let them all jockey and he’ll just keep winning.

All around the NBA, the twentysomethings are plotting to get together and run him down. Bryant has everything a star could want: one of the most storied franchises, the most talented teammates and a game that’s never been more refined, more devastating. While those young stars are scrambling for relevancy, Bryant has a chance to keep stacking title upon title. He’s on four, pushing for five.

“That’s exactly how I feel,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “There are times when I sit back, particularly in the summer, and think about that. But when you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re thinking, “You’ve got a great opportunity here: ‘Don’t [bleep] this [bleep] up.’ ”

Don’t bleep this bleep up. Somehow, he’s still winning. The season sorted itself out, and Kobe is still standing above his sport. Once, Bryant was the tortured twentysomething who somehow had to apologize for his three championships because they were won with Shaquille O’Neal(notes). He won without Shaq a season ago, and now Bryant returns to the Finals for a third straight season.

All these young stars are searching for the proper supporting cast, an environment where they can balance celebrity and winning. When the rest of them are wasting so much time, thought and talk on the courtship of free agency, Bryant has everything in order to win now, and keep winning as a Laker.

“As the years went on, that list of what I had to worry about here has gotten shorter and shorter,” Bryant said. “In the first year [after Shaq], it was like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to score 40 points to keep us competitive. And I’ve got to make sure these guys stay in the gym late.’ It was a laundry list of stuff. The following year, it becomes, ‘What’s management doing?’

“Then every year, the list got shorter and shorter to where it is now. I don’t worry about what management is doing. I know they want to win. I’m not worried about Pau Gasol(notes) staying late and working. I just worry about us executing the right way – and that’s it.”

Bryant is wired so differently. To listen to LeBron James(notes) talk about wanting a global platform, wanting to be as much Jay-Z as Jordan, you have to wonder whether he’ll ever have that consuming need to be a champion again and again. Eventually, LeBron will win his title, but will he evolve his game like Bryant and Jordan, push past the athletic gifts to develop something that can sustain him into his 30s. I asked Bryant: Can you want all those outside things, chase them all, and still win championship after championship?

He thought for a moment, and then gave a big, big smile. “I’m going to say … ‘Yes.’ ” He was trying to be polite, but he doesn’t believe it. He knows this: “Growing up, I just wanted to play basketball. I wasn’t worried about anything else. I just loved to play, loved to win. If I’m not doing that, I’m not happy.”

The biggest thing for Bryant now: Don’t leave titles on the table. Gobble them all. That’ll be his biggest regret. Bryant and the Lakers have the Celtics again now, a chance for vindication over that 39-point obliteration to end the ’08 Finals. Jerry West never beat the Celtics, nor did Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor. For all the discussion about Bryant chasing Jordan as the greatest player in history, remember this: In Los Angeles, some will always consider Magic Johnson the greatest Laker of all. Jerry West says it’s Kobe, but that’s a debate that’ll swing Bryant’s way once he takes down the Celtics, too.

As for two years ago, Bryant says simply, “We were just not good enough. That team we had was just not good enough. We had players who were skilled, but we couldn’t match up with them. I mean, they chumped us. They played tougher than us. They wanted it more. And on top of all that, they were just better.”

There’s a part of Bryant that’ll never understand how he can retire with just one MVP trophy. Somehow, history will have to make right the fact that Steve Nash(notes) will retire with more MVPs than him.

For this year, anyway, all you can say is this: James is fortunate that the voting comes at the end of the regular season, not the end of the playoffs. “If I could’ve won 10 MVPs and 10 titles, I would’ve taken them all. But the most important thing is winning championships, as Bill Russell’s proven. That’s the true mark. But look at Michael. He was able to do both.”

So yes, these twentysomethings chasing the Championship of Me in free agency are searching for the formula to topple Bryant, and that drives him every day. After those tumultuous three seasons in Shaq’s wake in Los Angeles, Bryant has this chance to keep winning titles and distancing himself, his legacy. They can have their free-agent summit – whatever that is – and Bryant will keep moving himself onto the sport’s Rushmore with Jordan and Russell, Magic and Bird.

On his way out of the Staples Center on Wednesday afternoon, between the locker room and L.A. freeways, Kobe Bryant sounded so relieved that free agency rages without him. “I’ve got to make sure we’re all on the same page, because you don’t want to mess this moment up. In the summer, you can sit and reflect, ‘Hey, maybe we just won another one. We’ve got great pieces. We’ve got a chance to run off God-knows-how-many more.’ But in this moment, you just tell yourself: ‘You’ve got work to do.’ ”

Kobe Bryant just tells himself: Don’t bleep this bleep up.