Kobe Bryant chases only a brighter future with the Lakers

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – They want Kobe Bryant to rage into the ruins, traffic tantrums and tirades over this lost cause. Just wait, everyone says. Just watch the fury unleash and watch Bryant burn down this franchise. They think that'll be the end of his story, the end of his Lakers life.

Only Bryant refuses to give himself the easy way out of the season, the easy way out of a franchise player's burden. He hates losing, but he doesn't hate this season and he doesn't hate this team. Another Lakers victory at the Palace on Tuesday, a victory in which his teammates covered for his flu.

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"The idea of me having no patience is misunderstood," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night. "I don't have patience when we're not putting the work in, if I see that we're not doing our job as professionals. If that's happening, I'll let my team know about it. But this is not that kind of group. We work. These guys want to get better every day. They're there early working, they're there late working.

"This organization put forth a lot of effort to try and land some of these top free agents. They went for it. I respect that. I appreciate that.

"Now it's time for me to go out there and do my job – not whine or complain about it."

Around the Lakers, they'll tell you they've never seen Bryant so patient with his teammates, so immersed in the incubation of a cross-section roster of kids, wannabes and has-beens. Yes, his shooting percentage is down. Sometimes, he's tried to do too much. This is a process for him, too. He had 31 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in a victory over Toronto on Sunday night. Fighting the flu, Bryant had 13 assists here on Tuesday night.

Kobe Bryant continues to insist he will play only for the Lakers. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant continues to insist he will play only for the Lakers. (NBAE/Getty Images)

And yet for all the frustration that comes with the decaying of the franchise's infrastructure, the start to Bryant's 19th NBA season has been a monument to his resolve and resourcefulness. When everyone expected to see a shell of a superstar, they've witnessed his regeneration.

"A knee fracture, an Achilles' injury and old age – nobody expected me to be moving the way that I am right now," Bryant told Yahoo. "To an extent, I didn't either. But I've done a lot of work. It's a puzzle that there's no example for. We're trying to figure this thing out on the fly.

"It's a lifestyle, an absolute around-the-clock lifestyle. There's no getting away from it. I've always enjoyed that aspect of it, the process of it, the building of it. But there will come a point when I don't anymore, and then it will be over for me."

This organization is a shell of itself, except for Bryant. Nevertheless, Bryant has become a fiercely loyal company man, defending the Lakers brand, its owners and management without condition. Mismanagement has played a part in the unraveling of the Lakers, but Bryant backs the Busses and make no mistake: He promises he'll never go ring chasing, never wear another uniform.

In a lot of ways, Bryant's auditioning for free agents this summer. They need to see that he's no dinosaur, that he can still deliver. The idea no one wanted to play with Bryant was a flawed premise, a shallow reality. The Lakers never pursued the frontline players on the market, sparing salary-cap space for superstar classes in 2015 and '16.

"Facts are, 'Melo stayed in New York, partly because it was a great financial decision," Bryant told Yahoo. "LeBron going home speaks for itself.

"What the hell do you want me to do?"

Bryant shrugged and smiled. "Helps the click-thrus, though."

Truth be told, Indiana's Paul George was mortified a publication reported he didn't want to play with Bryant on the Lakers. He had a $100 million max deal to stay with the contending Pacers, and never considered the possibility of leaving Indiana. George won't soon forget Bryant texting him on George's way into leg surgery this summer.

Bryant will keep recruiting stars to come to him, because he isn't leaving L.A. Along with the Lakers, he'll be pursuing Kevin Love to leave Cleveland this summer. In a summer in which it'll be hard to pry LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol away from Western Conference contenders, there's always the chance Love will go back on his assurances to management and bail on LeBron James.

Through it all, though, Bryant's stature, his career – and yes, the resurgence of his talent – is still the greatest element these Lakers have to sell free agents. Should the right combination of talent come in the summer of 2015 – and the prospects of more await a year later – Bryant doesn't rule out signing another deal beyond his contract expiration in '16.

Bryant hasn't ruled out signing an extension after his current deal expires. (USA Today)
Bryant hasn't ruled out signing an extension after his current deal expires. (USA Today)

"I've been very lucky," Bryant told Yahoo. "There's not too many organizations that come around like the Lakers. There aren't owners that come around like Jerry Buss. Now, Jim and Jeanie. They're really committed to this. They're really hungry for this.

"I could've easily been stuck with an organization somewhere that doesn't have great management, doesn't have a great owner – that only cares about the bottom line. Who knows the situation that I'd be in?

"That's luck."

Bryant doesn't want to talk about passing Michael Jordan on the career scoring list later this month, and scrunches his face when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record is mentioned. "I don't even know how many points he has," Bryant said. "I don't even care."

Now, he's standing in the locker room, knees iced and preparing to walk back into the visiting training room for more treatment. Bryant stops and insists on making his point clearer. He keeps hearing people suggest he's chasing the scoring list now, and he insists his motivation comes in the purest form every night: Am I leading this team closer to a championship mindset, to championships habits?

"The process of how I got here moves me," Bryant told Yahoo. "Never the accolades. It's the years that I've put in, the work. That's the thing now for me: the work. Every year I play, it's about winning championships. That's what I'm supposed to do. What else am I supposed to do? Not about this guy has that, that guy has that. …This is my job."

When asked about a season in which reality is that there will be no championship, no playoffs, no winning record, Bryant stops the question short: "Then I'm working toward it: a lot of teaching, a lot of talking, a lot of helping. Because that time will come again. And when it comes, my guys will have to be ready."

The Lakers are far, far away, but something has to keep Kobe Bryant going every night now, something has to make him believe he's preparing these Lakers for a championship war that'll never be waged. Everyone is waiting on Bryant to lose his mind, and something else is happening: He's refusing to give everyone the predictable, easy story of his intolerance and impatience. Bryant is fighting for these Lakers, because they're fighting for him.

Too old, too broken down, too far gone. All along, maybe Kobe Bryant had everyone – especially himself – right where he wanted.

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