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Kobe Bryant, more human than super at 37, sees 20th Lakers season as a great unknown

The first thing you noticed about Kobe Bryant were the shoes.

He showed up at perhaps his final Lakers media day Monday wearing odd-looking basketball sneakers that crept up his ankles like the footwear of a heavyweight.

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"I want to feel like a boxer," he said.

The next thing you noticed about Kobe Bryant were the shrugs.

This is a man who has made a career out of never being uncertain about anything. Yet, as he begins his 20th Lakers season in the stance of a fighter, he admitted he will be throwing punches into darkness, this last battle against mortality conducted with a blind fury toward an unseen opponent.

He could score a knockout, or be knocked out. He has no idea which.

Is he going to retire next spring? He shrugged and said he didn't have a clue.

"I thought about it a little bit in terms of what is the deciding factor, how do players actually know when it's time to hang it up, really, how do you truly know?" he said. "I don't know."

Will his role change this season with the younger Lakers perhaps needing his leadership as a facilitator? He shrugged and said he really couldn't say.

"It depends on what identity the team takes on, it's my responsibility to plug in those holes, pick up where we're lacking," he said. "That's the best I can answer your question. It's tough to say. I just don't know."

After he finished maybe his last media day mob interview, and the dozens of reporters and camera crews dissipated, I walked away with him while quietly asking one more time.

"So this is it, huh?"

"Seriously," he said, with one last shrug. "I just don't know."

And so, after thrilling Lakers fans with his surreal feats for nearly two decades, this basketball superman will begin the last steps of his career as an unsettled, uneasy mortal. It's a real look. For once, it's a look that everyone can understand.

"I continue to learn," he said. "It's the same for me from age 17 to 37."

Yeah, still hard to believe he's 37, and yet in some ways he's a kid again, wide-eyed, wondering, maybe even humbled, a far different Bryant than even the one who showed up at media day last year.

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Remember that? He was coming back from a season in which he played just six games because of leg injuries, and he was fighting to prove everyone wrong.

"All the worries and doubt just add fuel,'' he said at the 2014 media day, noting he was filled with "a little rage."

A year later, after playing in only 35 games before succumbing to more injuries, those worries are all his, and that rage is not. For the first time, Bryant is entering a season with no defiance on his face, no chip on his shoulder, no scores to settle except with himself.

The man who has spent his life challenging others to meet his impossibly high standards now has no idea if he can do the same. There is something endearing about this vulnerability in Bryant, something embraceable in the fears he surely shares with many others at the end of their careers.

"It went by fast," he said. "It went by fast."

Even if you've never cheered for Bryant, it's hard not to want to root for this final bumpy ride into who-knows-what, for this once brilliant basketball player uncertain of a sunset.

"I'm not sure," he said when asked about the prospects of a young team that most people predict will miss the playoffs again. "I'm just not sure."

One thing he does know is that he won't go out like his business buddy, Derek Jeter. While he would love to make a game-winning basket similar to Jeter's walk-off single in his final at-bat at Yankee Stadium, there will be no farewell tours here. If Bryant has it his way, nobody will know he's gone until he's gone.

"He and I couldn't be any more opposite personalities," he said of Jeter. Asked about the farewell tour, he said, "We're completely different people; I couldn't do that."

Bryant said he doesn't need gifts or ovations. He said it's enough that people continually ask about his retirement, that they care.

"It can get to be a pain in the ass, but when I sit back and think about it, it's cool. It means that you've had a really good career and people want to know when the time is coming for you to hang 'em up," Bryant said. "Like me, don't like me, you respect the career that I've had, and I think that's a pretty damn cool thing, man."

The respect is there. The coolness is there. Everyone will have to wait for the ending, the very human Kobe Bryant included.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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