EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — The third-leading scorer in NBA history had only the faintest smirk when he stood in front of the photographers’ backdrop in his gold jersey Monday and held up a white sign reading: “Kobe Bryant.”
Even heading into his 20th season, Bryant isn’t exempted from the Los Angeles Lakers’ regular preseason rites. The little things don’t appear to bother Bryant as much as they might have when he was closer to championship parades than retirement parties.
But if the 37-year-old Bryant is beginning the final season of his incredible career this week, he insists he doesn’t know it.
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” Bryant said. “Hell if I know. … If it is, it is. If it isn’t, I’ll be ready for next season.”
Asked several ways by reporters from several continents, Bryant repeatedly said he hasn’t decided whether to retire next summer. He has thought about it extensively, and he even consulted with Derek Jeter about the best way to know when to hang it up.
Bryant understands sports well enough to know his future will be a constant topic this winter. He’s ready for the speculation, but he can’t resolve it.
“People want to know when the time has come for you to hang them up,” he said. “Like me, don’t like me, they respect the career that I’ve had. I think that’s a pretty damn cool thing.”
Bryant has accomplished nearly everything possible in an NBA career, but the five-time champion’s last three seasons have ended early due to injury. He has played only 41 games in the past two years — and none since tearing the rotator cuff in his right shoulder last January, his famously resilient body finally breaking down under heavy minutes and responsibilities.
Without him, the Lakers went 21-61 in the worst season in the 16-time champion franchise’s history. Los Angeles missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1970s, and few give them much of a chance to avoid the Lakers’ first three-year playoff drought ever.
Bryant still dreams of a sixth ring, and he laughed at former coach Phil Jackson’s speculation he could pursue that jewelry elsewhere next year when his lavish Lakers contract runs out. Kobe laughed when asked about the 11-time champion coach’s thoughts.
“Everybody is going to have opinions, and I can’t comment on every single thing everybody (says), even if it’s a coach I’ve won so many championships with,” Bryant said. “It’s still his opinion. There will be many others.”
Bryant has more pressing responsibilities at home: He intends to mentor No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell. The 19-year-old point guard’s locker is next to his at Staples Center — and that’s totally by coach Byron Scott’s design.
“I’m excited to be out there with these young players who are starting their careers, starting their journeys,” Bryant said. “I’m excited to help them out and kind of show them things that I’ve learned. I’m as excited for this season as I’ve been in a long time.”
The Lakers’ bounty of young talent still treats Bryant with a respect bordering on reverence, although that might change after they’ve been in a few workouts with him.
“I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be around, so I love to get the opportunity to pick his brain a bit every day,” Russell said. “I won’t have to make it weird by walking to his locker. I just look to my right, and there he is.”
Bryant’s shoulder surgery led to a rehabilitation process that wasn’t as tough as his recovery from a torn Achilles’ tendon in 2013, he said. He still had plenty of time to consider his future, and Bryant said he got insight into retirement and farewells from Jeter, who is also a business partner.
“He and I couldn’t be any more opposite personalities, you know what I mean?” Bryant said of the Yankees captain, who walked away from baseball last year. “It’s fun just hearing his perspective and what he went through, what triggered the decision for him to step away from the game. I don’t know what that’s going to be for me, but we’ll see.”
No matter his decision, there’s no reason to make it now: Kobe already knows he has zero interest in a Jeter-esque farewell tour.
“We’re completely different people,” Bryant said with a grin. “I couldn’t do that.”