Kobe Bryant’s hard to embrace, but he’s clearly the best clutch player in the game


Kobe or not Kobe, the mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wearing No. 24, continues....

There was never an icon, or whatever Kobe Bryant is, like Kobe Bryant, who’s held at arm’s length even by a segment of Lakerdom.

When he broke Jerry West’s scoring record a wave of protest arose — among Lakers fans — offended by the suggestion that it made him the greatest Laker.

Kobe takes your breath away, but so did West and Magic Johnson, who also tugged at your heartstrings.

If Kobe realizes you have heartstrings, he doesn’t know how to tug at them, although he’s gone through enough PR people trying.

What setting a Lakers scoring record lacked in drama, Bryant is making up for with six game-winning shots — thus far — in his Miracles R Us season.

Of course, Kobe being Kobe, even this is arguable.

ESPN’s Henry Abbott, who had Bryant as a guy who made big shots “at a pretty good, but not elite, rate,” now says he’s “open to the idea he could still be the best clutch player in the NBA.”

That’s good because Bryant is far and away the best clutch player in the NBA.

LeBron James’s shooting has improved enough to put him in Bryant’s class, but he doesn’t have the same body of work.

If anyone seems close to them, it’s because you can’t measure “clutch.”

The Elias Sports Bureau now has a stat called “game-winners,” counting shots that put your team ahead to stay in the last 10 seconds.

Not that breaking a tie with 10 seconds left is like bringing your team from two points behind in the last :04 — as Bryant has done three times, against Miami, Sacramento and Memphis.

Two more Kobe jumpers in the last :07 brought them from one point behind in Boston and Milwaukee.

Then, there was last week’s relative anti-climax, an 18-footer with 1.9 seconds left, breaking a 107-107 tie with Toronto.

Bryant’s six game-winners, the most in a season since 2000, and his 20 for the decade to No. 2 Vince Carter’s 13, are officially incomparable — because the NBA didn’t archive play-by-plays until 1998.

We don’t know how many West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan made, but with or without stats, they were a different species from Carter.

If “clutch” isn’t quantifiable, it’s memorable. The later it gets in the season, the more there is riding on the shot and the more people there are watching, as when West hit his three-quarter-court shot against the Knicks in the 1970 Finals, Abdul-Jabbar dropped his baseline skyhook on the Celtics in 1974, and Jordan waved farewell with his jumper over Bryon Russell in 1998.

As Louis Armstrong said of jazz, if you have to ask what clutch is, you’ll never know.

“I know one thing: If I was a coach, I’d let someone else shoot a layup before I let him beat me,” West says. “I’d have everyone guarding him.”

This is Bryant’s world, where everything is possible but it comes hard.

LeBron James is no more accessible and doesn’t talk about anything remotely personal, but there’s something cuddly about the fun-loving guy friends call LB.

There’s nothing cuddly about Kobe, a.k.a. Black Mamba.

As much as Bryant yearns for people to see the real him, he doesn’t let anyone near the real him.

His recent GQ cover story, one of the great star turns for an athlete, is almost comical for what he won’t talk about ... like his name.

Kobe let the writer, J.R. Moehringer, take the helicopter ride with him from Orange County to a game but wouldn’t reveal which celebs text him, what he and Jordan talk about (“That’s sacred”) and, of course, Shaquille O’Neal (“I’m not a big reminiscer”).

The capper is how Kobe got his name. As Moehringer writes:

Did [his parents] love Kobe beef? Were they

eating it when they decided to conceive him?

“I don’t know,” he says.

You never asked?

“No. If you ever figure out what that

explanation is, let me know.”

This just in: Joe and Pam got it from the Kobe Steakhouse in King of Prussia Mall, near their home in Lower Merion, Pa., as noted in dozens of newspaper stories, magazine articles and books.

Moehringer is left to close with the observation he keeps hearing people make: “He seems like —”

I actually know what Bryant is like, or was like in unguarded moments, until 2004, when I fell out of what he called “the circle of trust,” which was never crowded and has virtually emptied.

He’s very nice and very laid-back, but arch-sensitive about his image.

He doesn’t think of goals, but of a destiny he was given to pursue — at 5, he once told me.

He seemed bulletproof, with a confidence nothing could shake — until his world was shaken. He’s still driven now, but even less open.

He has every moment scheduled for something that enhances his game, which he adheres to religiously. His dedication awed Olympic teammates but it’s not work to him.

Now he’s grown up, with kids of his own, and doesn’t talk much about destiny, but he’s still on that mission, up a very narrow path.