LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant(notes) has retreated into one of his dark provinces, a sullen and solitary state radiating an unmistakable aura: Don't bleep with me now. As Bryant creeps closer to these NBA Finals, he's long with his glares and short with his answers. Around him, his people will tell you that they've seldom seen him work his way into such a startling ferocity.
For fifteen minutes, he had been hellbent on getting out of the Staples Center interview room with pursed lips and muttered clichés. He wanted to give nothing, and he was well on his way when it was asked of him about needing a championship without Shaquille O'Neal(notes), about validating his legacy. There would be no clean getaway on Wednesday for Kobe Bryant.
He was out of clichés, out of patience and damn near out of his mind. "It means … nothing," he said, and now it was coming on the eve of Game 1, the window into Bryant's tortured soul that reminds everyone that it means everything.
"People think Shaq would have won a championship without me on that team?" Bryant sniffed.
Oddly enough, Shaq made a most predictable proclamation Wednesday on Twitter: "I want Kobe to get No. 4." Yes, he wants Bryant to catch him with No. 4, because it probably stings him less than Dwight Howard(notes) and Stan Van Gundy – two of his favorite targets – winning No. 1. Almost a year ago, Shaq gleefully rapped that "Kobe couldn't do without me," and laughed and laughed and laughed. It made Shaq look small and petty, just as that Tweet was so disingenuous.
These days, Shaq is on the defensive. He's trying to appear magnanimous, but it's a tough sell. Kobe refused to play make-believe with Shaq on All-Star weekend, and won't bother now.
For Bryant, this series is a chance to settle scores, old and new. Deep down, Bryant understands that he has to win a championship without Shaq. The question still chases him, still drives him wild, and now is his chance to never hear it again. Shaq is yesterday's champion in the NBA, and LeBron James(notes) is tomorrow's. The moment is now for Bryant. He hears all these arbitrary arguments of how James has surpassed him, but he didn't reach the Finals to prove it on the game's grandest stage.
LeBron didn't just lose the chance at an NBA dream Finals, he lost a little of his sterling reputation, too. Now, David Stern wants to talk to him about his lousy sportsmanship, and worse justification, in the aftermath of the Game 6 loss to Orlando.
Those close to Kobe were asking a fair question on Wednesday: How badly would Bryant have been beaten up had he pulled a stunt like LeBron's?
Almost assuredly, Bryant will retire with just one MVP award because LeBron and Dwyane Wade's(notes) twentysomething legs will dominate the next several regular seasons in bigger, bolder ways. But most of all for Bryant, the Lakers offer him a chance to compete for championships for the next few years, to catch Michael Jordan and his six titles.
That's how Bryant can separate himself. Ultimately, he understands that history will judge him on those, that the rings will punctuate the debate on the best player of his time, the best ever. For Bryant, there are no assurances past this season. Phil Jackson could retire with his 10th coaching championship, the one that would pass the Boston Celtics' Red Auerbach and that would leave Bryant starting over with a coach who will be Jackson's inferior.
These days, Bryant is cherishing what could be his final run with the coach, insisting, "It would be a tremendous honor to be on the team that can get him that 10th championship."
Mostly, though, Kobe Bryant is in Kobe Bryant mode. He tried so hard to get through his news conference without a window into him, but that's hard for Bryant. He has listened to that Shaq question over and over for years, and now's he's four victories from never hearing it again. No, Shaq never would've won those titles without Kobe. For those who still doubt that, well, Bryant called them "crazy." All that anger, all that animus, welled up within Kobe Bryant on the eve of these NBA Finals, and it will be something spectacular to watch at Staples Center on Thursday.
Yes, the message was unmistakable: Don't bleep with him now.