LOS ANGELES — The days of complaining about Kobe are over.
Ball hog. Taking an All-Star spot away from someone more deserving. Shoots too much. Shaq. Dwight. The lame Lakers being on national TV too much…
When Bryant comes back next, it will be the last hurrah.
Condemning him won't be cool anymore. For the first time in his very complex, very criticized career, Bryant will be in line to be pretty uniformly celebrated.
He hasn't made concrete his plan to retire after next season, but it is the plan. So this time next year, the All-Star Game in Toronto is shaping up as a celebration of Kobe, past and present—because there likely won't be a future.
That is the vibe in NBA TV's Kobe: The Interview, an hour-long special that will air at 9 p.m. ET Monday. Ahmad Rashad and Bryant literally walk through some memory lanes, reflecting on still photographs of Bryant's career hanging on the walls of the Coastline Art Gallery in Newport Beach, California.
The interview was filmed just after Bryant found out about the long recovery ahead for the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder: "I just did this! I just did this! Nine months. I just did nine months. And I gotta do it again," he said.
In an advance showing provided to Bleacher Report, Bryant clarified to Rashad that it was not a new injury suffered when Dante Cunningham bumped his shoulder from behind on Bryant's Jan. 21 dunk. It was an injury that got worse—and prompted Bryant to get an MRI that showed how bad it had become.
"Even now, the strength in my shoulder's good," he said prior to surgery. "It's fine; I can shoot. I've had this pain for a long time, and I've never actually gotten it looked at because the strength was so good."
You can hear in Bryant's words just how much he was tempted to keep playing through the bigger tear. Instead, he succumbed to getting the surgery. And just like that, yet another of his final seasons was gone.
What Bryant said at the start of the interview holds true for his supporters and haters alike when it comes to a nearly 20-year career that we all said we would try to cherish as it winds down.
"Even when you realize that you need to appreciate the time and the moment," Bryant said, "it still goes by fast."
What is clear is that Bryant, who did not appear in New York to speak over the weekend despite being voted to the All-Star team, still has fuel in the tank for another nine-month rally.
"I want to see if I can," he said. "I don't know if I can. I want to find out. I want to see."
Bryant used similar phraseology when reflecting on the question of whether or not he could win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal.
"I wanted to see," he said. "Can I do this thing?"
Bryant's driving force has always been curiosity about what he can do as long as he tries. And the sparkle in his eyes throughout his NBA TV interview, even mostly revisiting the past, was not merely a wistful one.
He still possesses the vitality to push through and prove something to himself—which, in turn, proves something to us.
Sometimes it inspires us because what is in him might be in us. Sometimes it scares us because what is in him is totally not in us.
The thing with Bryant as his career winds down is that he owns it, either way.
"Things that I want to do to be a great basketball player take up a lot of time," he said. "It takes a lot of time to be a great friend or to be social, and that's time I just wasn't willing to give."
I remember Bryant's wife, Vanessa, referring to him one time by the utterly common term "workaholic." That is what he has been, and he knows it. He accepts that Vanessa has been the leader in raising their daughters.
Kobe has made his choices.
Yes, he would like you to know that he isn't a jerk off the court, saying, "That's what I do; that's not who I am. There's a difference between the two. When I step on that basketball court, I become something else. That doesn't define who I am as a person."
But he is unwavering in his certainty that pushing the limits of personal convention is a noble pursuit.
"If you're going to be a leader, you're not going to please everybody," he said. "You've got to hold people accountable. Even if you have that moment of being uncomfortable."
He admits he has, at times, been aggressive toward others—which he states is far better than being passive-aggressive. This lends the interview a retrospective that surpasses in some ways the live-action drama.
Instead of Bryant at the time simply being difficult to coach, work with or follow—and being viewed as a jerk—now we have the two post-Shaq championships to validate the way Kobe operated. And even beyond the rings proving the point, here is a more thoughtful, open Bryant to reflect and articulate why he believes his edgy, confrontational leadership style has been worthwhile.
"You want them to be the best versions of themselves, and a leader has to drive for that. And in the moment there'll be times when they don't see that. You have to be able to be uncomfortable with that.
"If you're not, your team's not. You're going to run into a team that has a leader who is comfortable doing that. And you will lose."
That's not to say other men can't succeed with other leadership styles. But with his personality, Bryant believes in his system.
And whether you share the personality or the belief, his achievements have to be respected and deserve to be celebrated.
That's where we stand right now.
Same as with any relationship, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Bryant is missing because of injury again—and he figures to be gone for good almost as soon as he comes back.
Even though he's the one whose iron will has had to bend to his breaking-down body, Bryant has gotten to gratitude even before the rest of us will next season.
"You get older," he said, "you start seeing the beauty that's in that process. … You start trying to find love in that, find the beauty in that—which is completely different than being 21."
Complexity, criticism, championships…all of it only makes sense from this end of the tunnel.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.