SAN ANTONIO — Whether it is passing Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list or already assuming the lead in shots missed in league history, Kobe Bryant stresses that for him his career has been about exploring the soul of the game.
"I've never been a record-driven person," Bryant told Bleacher Report. "I've always been a person who really enjoys building the game that gets me to the record. I really enjoy that part of it more so than the actual accomplishment.
"The actual accomplishment is something that comes and goes, but the process of getting there is the part that I enjoy the most. So I'm not looking at it and saying, 'I've got to get this' or 'I've got to get that.' I really don't trip over it. I just enjoy playing; I love playing. And I play, and I learn. That's what I enjoy doing. What comes after that comes after that."
The edgy, cold-hearted manner with which he goes about his craft, Bryant knows, has obscured the tenets of effort, ethic and improvement he has preached.
The resultant misunderstanding is something Bryant reluctantly accepts.
"People don't listen," he said. "They don't listen. They don't listen. No offense, but media people don't stop and listen. They come up with an agenda of what they want to write, and whatever answer you give, they make it into the piece that they want to write.
"They don't really sit and listen. You know what I mean? I've said these things before, but they write what they want to write for content's sake or click-through sake or whatever the case may be.
"That's fine. I don't let it bother me at all. I'm very comfortable with where I am and who I am and how I go about what I do or what I enjoy doing the most—which is learning and playing this game."
Exhibit 1,487A (1,267 regular-season games plus 220 playoff games equals 1,487) was Tuesday night. After the Lakers' victory over the Sacramento Kings, Bryant wore a swollen upper lip from one collision; he had been awfully slow to get up a couple other times. He was so banged up that he said he just lay down all through halftime.
Head coach Byron Scott had found yet another helping to dump on Bryant's plate, making him the point guard down the stretch of his usual 36-minute outing. The Lakers trailed by six points when Bryant re-entered with 6:45 to play, and he scored or assisted on the Lakers' final 16 points en route to victory.
After all these years, it still hurts so good.
Persevering to win the game, whether on an epic stage or as a personal challenge between also-ran teams, is still something to savor.
Asked how he is going to make it with 60 games left if he's so beaten up now, Bryant said: "I don't know. Just take it day to day, day to day. Continue to do the therapy and stretching and get out there and try to perform."
The smile did not leave his face the whole time he was speaking.
If Bryant were an old-time blacksmith, he'd rise with the birds and revel in forging something with that hammer and anvil all alone, long before the glory of flaunting his finished project for public consumption.
It should be no surprise that Bryant spent what might be the eve of his passing-Jordan game Friday night engrossed in behind-the-scenes prep. With 31 points in San Antonio, Bryant will eclipse Jordan and trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone in all-time NBA scoring.
The Lakers scrimmaged in practice at home Thursday before leaving for San Antonio. Bryant enjoyed it immensely—and talked even more immense heaps of trash the way he has in so many practice matchups before.
Scott has reduced the practice time for Bryant to save his energy for games, evoking memories of the 2010-11 Lakers and their failed three-peat—when Phil Jackson and Bryant agreed to milk his bum knee to the finish by not practicing. The unique community that gets built up by Bryant's frenetic competitiveness within a group was lacking that season, and neither the journey nor destination proved satisfying.
"A wasted year of my life," Bryant memorably declared.
As far as regrets, Bryant legitimately laments how much more Del Harris could've played him in games those first two seasons. But you don't go the way Bryant has gone in practice then until now if you're just going for records.
The points you score in practice, by the way, don't count toward your career record.
And there's something else, too, which six-time NBA champion Abdul-Jabbar will tell you.
The points you score in the playoffs don't count toward that career total, either.
"The things that count, the things that people judge him by," Abdul-Jabbar said on NBA TV about Bryant, "he has already achieved."
Asked to reflect on those achievements, Bryant will point to his NBA championships far ahead of this big pile of points.
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Yes, even though Michael has more rings, 6-5.
"I've always understood the purpose of playing in the NBA, on a team, with an organization, is to have the end goal of winning championships," said Bryant, who spoke with B/R recently about the inspiration and relation Jordan has provided as Bryant's basketball big brother. "And I always kind of sit back and let people banter back and forth for media's sake or whatever or what critics want to say. But at the end of the day, we play to win championships—and I've got five of 'em. That's a pretty damn good number.
"No matter how you slice it. You can cut it a million different ways. But five is five."
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.