Kobe Bryant isn't done yet, but he's getting there. And he knows it.
Time has left the once-indiscreet and brazen-faced Los Angeles Lakers superstar introspective and guileless, inclined to look ahead to days when his stay at the top is over.
That doesn't mean he's looking ahead toward retirement, as he so dutifully reminded the New York Daily News' Frank Isola:
I bumped into Kobe as he headed to his press conference. "You're not announcing your retirement are you." His response: "(Bleep) that."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 17, 2014
Being unable to fulfill his latest All-Star selection was yet another precursor to a future without Bryant. A fracture of the tibial plateau, suffered six games after recovering from an Achilles injury, prevented Bryant—who has now been selected to 16 All-Star games—from making his 15th All-Star appearance.
It was also a stark reminder that nothing has gone as planned for the future Hall of Famer this season.
Where there was once inevitability and sureness, there is now an uncertain and contemplative Black Mamba, working toward a 2013-14 return that is no longer guaranteed.
"It's coming slowly. It's coming slowly," Bryant said Sunday at the NBA's All-Star Game, during which he was a bystander for just the second time since 1999, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. "I'm optimistic coming out of the break that I will have some improvements, once I get back to L.A. and do a couple follow ups and then go from there. But it's been a slow process."
Returning this season, even after going down a second time, wasn't even a question previously. It was going to happen. No way, no how would Bryant be reduced to a spectator for 76 of the season's 82 games.
Age has caught up with him, though, diminishing the impact of his usual defiance and truculence, making it so Bryant is at the mercy of his body, and not his will, for the first time of his career.
That's something he must become accustomed to, a reality he must live with. Having already missed 47 games this season, Bryant is roughly six months away from turning 36, rapidly approaching the end of an incredible run.
But that run isn't over just yet.
"When you play in an All Star Game, that means you're one of the best players in the world," Bryant said, via Spears. "So it's obviously a big goal of mine to be there."
Players in Bryant's position aren't typically thinking about remaining one of the best players in the world. They're thinking about survival, about prolonging a career that's hanging in the balance.
Will Kobe Bryant ever play like a legitimate All-Star again?
Unlike most others, Bryant is playing for something different: sustained greatness—an endeavor he finds exciting and fulfilling.
''That's part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty: Is this it?...Are my best days behind me?'' Bryant said, per The Associated Press' Brett Martel (via Yahoo Sports). ''To have those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that and ... not succumbing to that is part of the challenge.''
Plenty of fight is still left in Bryant, a pensive and candid old dog with the heart and will of a defiant 20-year-old.
Perhaps his best days are behind him. Maybe his absolute brilliance is forever shaken, lost to the cruel progression of time.
Maybe Bryant will never be the same, or close to the same, again.
As for retirement, though? As for being completely done without anything to play for other than immaterial pride and an undeserving paycheck?