It has come to pass for Kobe Bryant


MINNEAPOLIS — I’m liking the laugh-out-loud guy sitting across from me at Starbucks, maybe as big a shock as Kobe Bryant and I getting together to sip vanilla lattes.

You know who I’m talking about: the Kobester, the Big Baby, the Ball Hog, the Tanker.

And here I am, the Hater.

“We’re human beings, so we’re complicated,” Kobe says.

We have already spent the last hour discussing his obsessive intensity, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O’Neal, his stifling inner circle and his belief he can pass the Lakers into the playoffs.

“I just happened to grow in front of everybody and a lot happened,” Kobe says. “Maybe one day in like 15 years or so some people will come to realize we didn’t quite get him when he was playing.”

There was a time when we would talk regularly and with great respect. And there was a time when we would not, replaced later by a lot of growling and confrontation.

The shift continues, the Lakers at their worst but Kobe at his best. And so what’s wrong with him? I begin.

“I find myself talking sometimes and I can’t believe what I just said,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Realistically I have only one year left, so I’m trying to enjoy myself.”

But what happened to the inner circle of trust, Kobe admitting, “You were off the reservation,” if you didn’t flatter him?

“I didn’t have time to deal with nonsense,” he says. “I had quite a bit of recovery going on, so I didn’t have time to deal with negative stuff.

“I’ve taken the reins off now. I’m more open, hence Twitter. I’m at peace.”

So ask him anything, and he obliges.

“Are you worried Howard might leave, jeopardizing a chance to win another ring, if he’s not a fan of Mike D’Antoni’s coaching?”

“Yeah, a little bit,” Kobe says.

“Have you asked Dwight if he’s going to stay?”

“I want him thinking about being our defensive stopper so we can ride him into the playoffs,” Kobe says.

“Is D’Antoni the right coach?”

There’s a long pause. “I don’t think a coach becomes the right coach until he wins a championship. I don’t think Erik Spoelstra was the right coach in Miami until he won. Phil Jackson was just some hippie coaching in Chicago with this weird offense.”

“Can D’Antoni win a championship?”

“The question for me, is he capable of figuring this puzzle out? I think he has the brains to do so.”

What about Howard and Bryant?

“I’ve been through much worse,” Kobe says. “Shaq and I honestly didn’t like each other. At least Dwight and I do like each other.”

I suggest to Kobe that he probably thinks Howard is a clown, and Kobe says, “Yeah, but let me explain.

“Dwight is jovial. But by me being who I am, it balances out.”

Howard is now wearing a headset listening to music before games rather than joking with the media. I suggest it’s Kobe’s doing. I get no argument.

“Oh yeah, he’s trying to figure out that balance,” Kobe says. “I know there’s a lot of joy to what Dwight does, but I’m just trying to show him a little more intensity here and there.

“Shaq was very sensitive like Dwight, but he was also a beast. You look at Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem and these guys would rip your heart out. What if Wilt had Russell’s engine? How many championships would he have won?”

When I suggest Gasol doesn’t have that engine, Kobe says, “No, he doesn’t, and not many people do.

“But Gasol is the ultimate team guy. You see him stepping out there and performing. He’s not happy with it, and I told him, just be honest and say so, because no matter what he’s going to do the job.”

Kobe’s motor remains revved to the max at age 34. His intensity is plastered across his face while just walking onto the court for pregame introductions.

“That’s my slow walk,” he says. “That’s me getting into my zone. I’m just putting on my Secretariat blinders; it’s race time.”

But he comes across arrogant. Why not show more joy?

“That’s not going to happen,” he says. “I know I drive a very hard bargain. I was reading the Steve Jobs book, which was enjoyable because it made me seem like a Magic Johnson-like character.”

Jobs was at the top of his game as well, but written off as a jerk by some.

“I don’t think I’m a [jerk] except on the court,” he says. “Come down to Newport and then people I know will tell you I’m different off the court.”

He says he might have followed more in Magic’s footsteps had fans in Los Angeles not been divided by the Shaq-Kobe feud. He says he will never get past that with some people.

He will be remembered, of course, for being one of the game’s greats, willing to eat your young, or his own jersey to win.

“It’s disgusting, but my father taught me when your mouth gets dry, just suck the sweat out of your own jersey,” he says. “There’s no bravado to any of it; it’s just a disgusting little trick.”

When we move our chat to the end of his career, I ask him how he will feel if he doesn’t win another ring.

“I can’t see that happening,” he says.

We argue about what is sacrificed in the pursuit of always having to win, and he says, “Winning takes precedence over all. There’s no gray area. No almosts.

“It’s a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It’s not healthy. And I can’t justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization.”

To win, he contends, he must set an example.

“This team needed it,” he says. “In the meeting we had in Memphis we were talking about doing things that maybe we’re not what we do best. What I do best is shoot, maybe passing is the best way for us to win now.

“I tried it in the seventh game of the [2006] playoffs against Phoenix,” he says, while not pleased being known as the Tanker.

“I scored 50 in Game 6 and we lost. I scored like 17 in the first half, and took a gamble. I decided to pass to try and get everyone else going. It didn’t work.

“I took the same gamble here and if it hadn’t worked out, what would people be saying now? Kobe isn’t shooting so he can prove some point?

“What I’m doing now is being selfish. I’m trying to help the team because I want to win a championship.”

He says he hasn’t decided when he will retire, but he knows fans won’t see him fade as they did when Michael Jordan played with Washington.

“You didn’t have to see that version of Michael. He retired at 36 in Chicago at the top of his game. There’s a not a chance you’ll see me [like that].”

So when the end comes, how does he wish to be remembered?

“As a winner and overachiever,” he says. “A guy who worked and played hard like he was the 12th man on the roster.”

And a complicated human being, pretty much like everyone else, I guess.