By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 9:26 PM
Kobe Bryant knows they are coming after him, either to take away what he wants or to prove that they belong. He has seen superstars form a conglomeration in Miami, Shaquille O'Neal join forces with the most hated rival of his Los Angeles Lakers, and Tim Duncan accept a lesser role for the San Antonio Spurs to flourish. And, almost every game, Bryant watches younger talents come out, hoping to make an impression or perhaps make a name, when matched up against him.
Bryant can relate to the chase, because he has always been on it, though the goal has changed through his 15 seasons, right along with his hairstyle and his jersey number.
As he prepares to tie the record with his 13th Christmas Day game Saturday afternoon, with the Lakers hosting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, Bryant remembers when he sported an oversize Afro and the No. 8 and was eager to impress Michael Jordan, the player he most admired and respected. The first time they shared the floor in an all-star game more than 12 years ago, Bryant begged for a one-on-one duel with Jordan and angered Karl Malone by waving off a pick, all in an effort to make Jordan recognize that he was there.
"When I was in the league, younger, going against Michael in '98, it might have meant a lot to me, playing against him," Bryant said recently. "But he was thinking about a sixth championship. So we were both hunting; we were just hunting different things."
Bryant is now hunting what Jordan wanted back then. He has won five titles, the most of any active player, and is a second three-peat away from surpassing Magic Johnson and matching Jordan, the standard bearer for the modern era of NBA players.
At 32, Bryant has replaced some of the athleticism that he has lost with more skill and savvy, and the Lakers are no longer solely reliant upon his offensive explosions to consistently win. And, ever since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis in February 2008, Bryant has returned to the playoff success to which he had grown accustomed before O'Neal was traded to Miami in 2004.
Bryant had his greatest scoring seasons without a dominant big man, but was left with the emptiness of a lottery appearance and two first-round playoff exits. Each taste of success in recent years has only intensified Bryant's desire for more, and he is appreciative of his current opportunity.
"It really just means that I've been fortunate," Bryant said. "It's been so many great players, who haven't had teams around them to be successful. It wasn't that I've had teams that have dealt with injuries or whatever the case may be, but everything is kind of coming together. Chasing the second three-peat, you have to have a little bit of good fortune on your side, I've had that. We've taken advantage of it."
When James made the controversial decision to join forces with Wade and Chris Bosh last offseason, he never hid that the reason for the merger was the desire to claim an elusive championship and to build a dynasty in Miami. James already has surpassed Bryant in the league's most valuable player trophies, two to one, and has come away with the upper hand in regular season matchups. But Bryant's team success has trumped James's individual accolades, which explains why James abandoned Cleveland because he wants "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six titles . . ."
Bryant realizes he has what other players want, whether rings or recognition, which makes him more concerned about what happens in Miami, Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or anywhere else.
"You pay attention to it, because those are imminent threats to us three-peating, you know what I mean," Bryant said. "So you watch it from that standpoint, how they progress and you can't be completely oblivious or ignorant to what other teams are doing."
Bryant said he noticed a shift in how opposing players approached him "once I gained all the respect of being the best player, from my peers. Then it was like, I was fortunate enough, I won three championships and from that point, it was always about chasing something else. Now, more so than it's ever been, it's about winning these rings and that cements or enhances your place as a premier player."
But while Bryant's overall objective may have changed, he said he still wants opponents to leave the floor after every game feeling the same way they did when he was an overly ambitious teenager, fresh from high school, coming off the bench for the Lakers.
"If it was 14 minutes or whatever, I always tried to play and let my peers know that I was going to be a great player," Bryant said. "I tried to do that from Day 1."