L.A. finally sees the true Kobe Bryant, and it's a pleasure to behold

As he nears end of career, Lakers' Kobe Bryant is showing more facets of personality, including self-awareness

Some days, he laughs like we've never heard him laugh. Other days, he barks with a startling chill.

One moment he rages with competitiveness. The next moment, his throat is thick with humility.

He winces in pain. He reflects with wisdom. He jokes about his shortcomings. He fights against frailty.

It's taken 19 years, but it feels like Los Angeles is finally seeing the real Kobe Bryant, and what a joy.

During a season filled with Lakers defeats, every game for Kobe is a triumph over age, a victory over reputation, a win against the natural predisposition to preserve a mask that has served him so well for so long.

That mask was gone when he showed up after a Sacramento game with a fat lip and said, "I'm hurting, I'm hurting."

That mask disappeared when he showed up in Detroit and said he was so tired he slept the day away. "I closed my eyes it was 9:30 [a.m.], I opened them again it was 2 o'clock, what the hell happened?"

Derek Jeter just completed a carefully orchestrated farewell tour in which the world learned nothing about him, planting him into the landscape as little more than a pinstriped monument. Kobe Bryant is only a couple of months into what could a two-year farewell tour, and he delightfully couldn't be more different. He is slowly showing us everything, revealing bits of himself in every grand moment and small gesture, ensuring that he won't just be remembered as a Staples Center statue, but somebody real.

Remember his first milestone, seven games into the season, when he set the awkward NBA record for career missed shots? Byron Scott, the Lakers' coach, actually threw up a shield for Bryant by calling the record "crap," and a younger Bryant might have walked away in a huff, but this one stuck around and smiled.

"Well, I'm a shooting guard that's played 19 years," he said, later adding, "You've got to step up and play, man. You can't worry about criticism. You can't worry about failure."

Then, a couple of weeks later, Bryant became the first NBA player with more than 30,000 points and 6,000 assists. Instead of gloating about the assists, he smiled and laughed at himself.

"It's a huge honor," he said. "It means I pass more than people say."

There was the time he missed a morning shoot-around and blamed his weariness on a mythological figure that sent reporters scrambling to Google.

"What I got, man, comes from Chronos," he said, referring to a mythological figure who was the origin for Father Time.

Even as he was showing the world his softer and more human side, Bryant reminded everyone of the nasty, almost inhuman competitive edge that fueled his five-ring greatness. For years, everyone has heard stories about Bryant's toughness during practice, but reporters were only allowed to see the final minutes when everything was calm.

Last week Bryant finally confirmed those stories by throwing a fit at the end of a practice in front of the media. He ripped teammates, called them "soft like Charmin," and even profanely griped about their effort to General Manager Mitch Kupchak.

"I don't know if it helps them, it obviously raises the intensity level," he said later, adding, "I just challenge guys, see what happens. I've always believed in throwing them in the pool then seeing if they can sink or swim."

These varying views into Bryant's previously shut-tight persona became even more clear Sunday in Minnesota when he passed Michael Jordan for third place on the all-time scoring list.

At the beginning of the postgame interview, this most hardened of athletes looked like he was going to cry.

"I'm just honored to be here, to still be playing," he said.

A guy who usually talks like he will play forever openly stared down his own basketball mortality.

"I appreciate the game even more, because it has a certain finality to it," he said. "Moments like this come around, you're really overjoyed by it . . . at the same time, the end is pretty near, which is fine too."

Then the guy who has long fueled himself with opposing fans' boos actually talked about appreciating cheers from the Minnesota fans.

"When you're not expecting a hug, and you get a hug, and you're like, man this actually feels pretty damn good," he said.

When is the last time Kobe Bryant used the word "hug?"

As Bryant then explained, for all these years, his tough talk and sharp edges have been more a job description than a personality trait.

"I think the competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people, when you peel back truly what's inside a person, to compete and be at that high level, it scares a lot of people that are comfortable just being average," he said. "You can't get to a supreme level without kind of channeling the dark side."

Los Angeles is finally seeing all sides of this town's most polarizing sports star, and it may allow us to drop all the tired criticisms and appreciate the athlete.

Seriously, after 19 years, can everyone stop complaining about how much he shoots the ball? On this awful Lakers team, at this stage of his career, does it really matter anymore? This column space has ripped him a lot, but right now, it's a pleasure watching him fight, and he can't shoot the ball enough.

I texted Bryant Tuesday about how he has approached this season.

"It's growth and understanding that things come and go, good, bad, etc.," he responded. "I have more compassion for others . . . because I'm currently working through the limits time has given me while still challenging the extent of those limitations."

I asked him about that dark side.

"It's what I am," he said. "It's not WHO I am."

Never too late, a city finally sees.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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