In some circles, these might be fighting words.
When Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers met up with Rondo's Boston Celtics on Friday, Bryant took the chance to throw some compliments at the four-time All-Star. Well, compliments that carried a certain Mamba twist. Per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation:
Only Kobe could call someone an asshole and make it a compliment. Kobe on Rondo: "From what I understand he’s an asshole, like me."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) January 18, 2014
Coming from a different person or heading toward another recipient, that quote could have been the start of something entirely different. Bryant might not have even finished that seven-letter word before punches—or worse—were thrown.
But considering the source, there's a certain reverence to this otherwise obscene comment.
Rondo understood the message completely. He embraced it, appreciated it and sent that "love" right back Bryant's way. Via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe:
Rondo, on being called an asshole by Kobe: "That's a great compliment, coming from Kobe. I feel the same way about him."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) January 18, 2014
This round of mutual respect had to come from a distance. While Rondo returned to a hero's welcome, Bryant remains sidelined by a fracture in his left knee.
The Mamba might not be back when the Celtics visit the Staples Center on Feb. 21, but he will be re-evaluated early next month. While some have suggested he should sit out the remainder of the season, Bryant said his sole focus is getting back to the hardwood, via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger. I can't allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.
Some might think Kobe's crazy. He thinks it's crazy to go about things any different.
That's just how competitors like he and Rondo are wired.
The NBA is already an exclusive fraternity, but these are two of its most unique members. As SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal put it, "Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo are both otherworldly basketball players, both champions, and both—most everyone agrees—pretty bizarre, hyper-competitive, occasionally disagreeable guys."
Neither bites their tongue, nor ever lowers their expectations for the players around them. But the high standards they hold for others can't stand next to what they place on themselves.
Their styles aren't for everyone, but their track records make it hard to argue with their methods. There's a certain stubbornness in both players, a fuel that keeps burning while a number of things (downgraded supporting casts, injuries) keep trying to choke out those flames.
Professional athletes like these two don't come around often.
Rondo returned to the hardwood for the first time in nearly 12 months during Boston's 107-104 loss to L.A. on Friday. As his coach Brad Stevens noted after the game, it seemed like he'd never left, via Brian Robb of NBA.com:
He's been studying the game like he's been out there for the last 40 games instead of just sitting there and doing what a lot of hurt guys do -- and that's not pay as much attention. And he has [paid attention]. So emotionally, mentally, he looked ready to me.
When Bryant was just days into his return from a near eight-month layoff after a torn Achilles, the 18-year veteran welcomed a position change and increased workload for the good of the team (per Winters):
Kobe: "I don't really have much of a choice right now. I gotta get out there & do a lot more than expected." (on pushing it w/o Blake)— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) December 12, 2013
These two are simply cut from a different cloth. They have something on the inside that the rest of us don't.
They have a different view on competitiveness, leadership and responsibility. And a special way of showing admiration, too.