I had to ask him.
Kobe Bryant had just accepted the most meaningful, coveted most-valuable-player award of any sport, gripping it tight amid a hotel ballroom teeming with legends and love.
But I had to ask him.
Now that he is basketball’s official king of unselfishness, does he regret those times last spring when he was so selfish?
Now that he is basketball’s official portrait of teamwork, does he regret those summer days when he was the Lakers’ worst teammate?
“No,” he said, staring coldly. “I was right the whole time.”
He paused. The room fell silent.
“I’m joking!” he said suddenly with a laugh, and, filled with great and obvious relief, everyone laughed with him.
Maybe he was joking. Maybe he wasn’t. The only thing certain is that those five seconds symbolized a dozen years.
Bryant can make you shake your head in sadness, then shake your head in amazement.
He can make you scream with frustration, then scream with excitement.
He can make you wish he would disappear, then pray he never leaves, all in the same 11-month period, which is exactly what has happened during this most surreal of seasons.
“It’s Hollywood,” Bryant said with unabashed glee. “It’s a movie script.”
The award, officially announced Tuesday during a news conference, appropriately paints a season that serves as a metaphor for a career.
Most Vexing Player.
Most Valuable Player.
It is impossible to separate one from the other, if only because one feeds off the other.
What makes Bryant so difficult off the court is precisely what makes him so great on the court.
The cold blood that led him to call Lakers owner Jerry Buss an “idiot” is the same cold blood that enables him to brilliantly take, and make, every big shot.
The self-centered nature that makes him so aloof from his teammates and the community is the same self-centered nature that allows him to unflinchingly carry all of them in crunch time.
The focused drive that ultimately destroyed his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal is the same focused drive that has built this team into a potential champion.
The paradox was in full view during the first round’s Game 4 in Denver.
Before tipoff, Bryant was seen ignoring all locker room small talk and niceties, glaring at everyone and stalking away.
But in the fourth quarter that night, the glare became a dagger, and the stalk became a swagger, and the Nuggets never stood a chance.
“What Kobe has is both a blessing and a curse,” said Brian Shaw, the Lakers assistant who has closely watched Bryant throughout his career. “The same things that make him so good are the same things that turn everyone off.”
A blessing and curse.
It would be untrue to Bryant’s legacy to focus on one without the other.
We can’t celebrate this week’s “MVP” chants without remembering this early-season’s boos.
We can’t marvel at how the Denver fans cheered for him last week without remembering their Eagle-related catcalls several years ago.
We cannot marvel that both he and O’Neal have won one MVP award each without wondering why they could not have stayed together and turned them into championships.
“Sure, some people think Kobe could be more personable,” Shaw said. “But that’s just him being focused.”
The same paradoxes that have filled his complicated life also filled his celebration day.
Bryant acknowledged that, last spring, perhaps he should not have publicly torched three of the key figures in this season’s resurgence -- Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Andrew Bynum.
“Obviously, there are a lot of things that I would have done differently,” he said.
But instead of stopping there, he had to throw yet another backhanded compliment at Kupchak.
“I think what should be said -- which I don’t want to say, but I’m going to say anyway -- is we have to give a lot of credit to Mitch Kupchak,” he said. “He put together this great team, he’s made several incredible trades, he drafted extremely well and he’s helped put us into position to contend for a championship. You have to take your hats off, give credit as far as credit is due, as well as to Jerry Buss.”
Asked about the first part of that comment, the eternally patient Kupchak just shrugged and smiled.
“Sounded like they had to drag it out of him,” he said. “I’m happy that he’s happy with the players we have brought in. But I’m even happier that we had the best record in the Western Conference.”
Bryant was wonderful in talking about the award belonging to the team.
“We have done it together,” he said. “This is us playing as a unit. These guys made me look better than I am.”
But you have to wonder, what happens if this team stumbles during the next month? Will Bryant still publicly support it while behaving like most established stars and keeping his criticisms behind closed doors?
Will he show everyone the same respect he was shown Tuesday, when the entire team and the Buss family gathered in the ballroom to openly cheer him?
“If we don’t win a championship, probably what happened last summer will happen again,” Shaw said almost admiringly. “He’ll watch some other team play for the title and it will get under his skin, Kobe is just that competitive.”
A blessing and a curse.
On the court, it is a blessing to have watched a cocky 17-year-old grow into the kind of mature player now willing to spread his arms wide enough to embrace true greatness.
“In the last six to eight months, he’s changed, he’s really changed,” Buss said. “He’s really crossed that line” to athletic maturity, “and I’m really, really pleased.”
But off the court, it’s a curse that this journey has taken so long and has been so awkward and is still so uncertain.
“It’s been a long ride,” Bryant said. " . . . I’ve been through all the wars. . . .”
It is a blessing that his fans -- who can now chant “MVP” at the top of their lungs for a dozen months -- could hear him say Tuesday he wants to be a Laker for life.
“I would like to, absolutely,” he said.
It is a curse that nobody still has any idea whether he means it.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.