As a 34-year-old veteran about to embark on his 17th NBA season, Kobe Bryant knows that he’s much closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s going to quietly fade into the background, even on a team that he described as “on its face, the best talent I’ve been around.”
The Lakers might have added a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Howard and a two-time MVP in Steve Nash since last season, but the No. 1 guy is still going to be No. 24 if he has anything to say about it.
“I got a question earlier about whose team this is,” Bryant told reporters at the Lakers media day Monday. “I don’t want to get into the, ‘Well, we share …’ No, it’s my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away this organization can ride on as if I never left.”
Howard, a former teammate of Bryant’s at the 2008 Olympics, with his happy-go-lucky personality and fun-loving ways, said he is at the point of his career that he is looking forward to falling in line behind the no-nonsense Bryant.
“I’m willing to go through that process, learn from one of the greatest to ever play the game and I think it will be great,” Howard said. “I think learning from a guy like Kobe, I know he’s going to be tough on me but I expect that and I want him to do that. So, I’ll take all the heat that he’s going to give me because I know at the end of the day that’s going to make me a better player and a better person and it’s going to make this team better.”
According to Bryant, part of his plan to nurture Howard is to prepare the All-Star center to become the face of the Lakers franchise when he retires. Bryant has two years remaining on his contract with the team. Howard only has one year, but it is widely assumed that Howard will re-sign a max extension with the Lakers this upcoming offseason.
“This organization has done so much for me. I’m so thankful to them,” Bryant said. “That’s one of the conversations that (Lakers vice president of player personnel) Jimmy (Buss) and I had over the summer. It was like, ‘If you have the opportunity to get Dwight, get him because I want to see this organization continue to flourish and continue to be successful long after I’m gone.’ ”
Nash, who has experience playing alongside All-Stars like Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas and Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix while sharing the spotlight, said that Bryant is the rightful choice as the person who controls the team.
“I think this is Kobe’s team,” Nash said. “For the media’s perspective, this is Kobe’s team. But anyone who’s ever played on a basketball team, it’s also our team. The team needs to share in that responsibility. Kobe can’t do everything. He’s going to be great at what he’s great at, and the rest of us got to pick up the pieces that get to us. This is undoubtedly Kobe’s team. He’s been here his whole career. He’s won championships. And he’s the best player on the team. We got to be there for him every day, so it’s essentially our team as well.”
While unwilling to concede his spot in the pecking order, Bryant believes that he, Howard, and Nash as well as the team’s other key pieces in Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison can coexist because of the variety to their skill sets.
“I don’t see it as being an issue at all,” Bryant said. “We do different things. I think having Steve helps tremendously. It’s a different dynamic than it was with (Shaquille O’Neal). I had to do something that I naturally don’t do, which is be a quarterback, make plays for other people and score. The responsibility of him getting the ball fell on me and it was like, this is not what I do. But I figured it out.
“Here, that’s Steve. Steve’s the quarterback. He has a great system in the Princeton offense to kind of play around with and manipulate. I just slide to my natural spots.”
Bryant, while still holding on to his role as the team spokesman, is certainly receptive to being a receiver and leaving the QB duties to someone else this season.