LOS ANGELES — Absent from his farewell season has been the basketball that Kobe Bryant made his standard—so wicked and righteous that it shaped all who beheld it.
Bryant has thus been left to communicate with the masses like a mere mortal—with words.
The body has broken down, yes, but Bryant has been building up to this season of his spoken word the previous 19 years of his career.
"If you're going to like me or not like me, at least like me or not like me for who I actually am," Bryant said to Bleacher Report. "I'll be cool with that."
Bryant paused as he searched in his memory bank for the spin-dribble moment he swiveled to become as bold verbally as was athletically.
"About…2006-2007, I just got rid of the filter," he said. "Just started saying whatever it is that I feel. It's a lot easier that way."
That's the midpoint of his career, and the fact Bryant didn't realize that even now shows how naturally he has evolved: from a politically correct youngster uneasy about how much of his true ambition he should share to a global icon comfortable in his own skin.
There were still plenty of moments early in his career that Bryant, while careful, couldn't resist talking himself up. It's why he says he has grown up in front of everyone. That has made it possible to get a real feel over two decades of what matters to him.
Bryant doesn't have a favorite quote by a famous person; he doesn't have a favorite quote from his career, either. He just takes a freestyle, stay-in-the-moment approach, and it results in him coloring outside the lines whenever he feels like it.
Bryant's latest eye-opening pronouncement came Monday night, when he said his 2013-15 returns from the Achilles', knee and shoulder injuries—all season-enders—stand as the greatest accomplishments of his career.
"Tough to muster up the motivation to have to keep coming back," he explained.
That might just be recency effect talking, but you can rest assured it truly is Bryant's thinking, too. He will not be guarded about whatever is on his mind or in his heart.
So as he prepares for his final game Wednesday night, there is no better way to cut to the core of Bryant's career than to use his own words.
What follows are the five most Kobe quotes of Kobe's career, each representing a deep slice into the essence of what he has been all about.
• "When Shaq fouled out, I said, 'This game just became a lot more interesting.' Pressure? No, I was too into the game to feel any pressure. To be honest, this is the kind of game I've always dreamed about." (2000)
This was right after Bryant's coming-of-age Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Indiana, and he was too drunk with joy to hold his tongue. Bryant had just led L.A. to a 3-1 series lead after scoring eight points (six of them with Shaquille O'Neal on the bench) in overtime of the Lakers' 120-118 win.
Early in his career, Bryant was all about challenges upon challenges. To thrive in his first Finals after sitting out the previous game with a sprained ankle, and then dominate overtime after NBA MVP O'Neal fouled out—that was just the kind of three-ring circus and high-wire act Bryant needed as a young thrill-seeker pushing his limits.
Degree of difficulty is part of Bryant's equation for true satisfaction.
It's why he has loved taking tough shots and has lived for making game-winning ones. He has always wanted more pressure, because to him, that just translates to more fun.
That nerve can produce three playoff air balls as a rookie in Utah—and then it can make for one of the greatest careers in sports history.
• "If you know me, I'm probably the most optimistic person you've ever met." (2004)
Bryant was facing a 3-1 series deficit in the 2004 NBA Finals against Detroit—plus a well-publicized sexual-assault charge. Still, he offered a rosy outlook on his circumstances.
Redemption has been an overarching theme in his life and career. Whether trailing in a game or seeking some risky medical advancement or salvaging his marriage, Bryant believes he can find a way to a better light. He believes he can find a way, and his success is a testament to the power of being your own No. 1 advocate and fan.
Bryant views himself as the star of every story, with superhero powers to innovate, whether that vision leads him to save time by traveling to games via helicopter or become more physically efficient by making his signature sneakers one ounce lighter.
It's why Bryant works so hard: He trusts that he will learn something and good will come out of it.
It's why he was so crushed in 2007, when his belief that the Lakers weren't positioned to win after another early playoff exit led to him toying with the idea of asking for a trade. Optimists are vulnerable to severe crashes on the rare occasions when their high hope turns into dead-end disappointment.
Why does Bryant point with such pride to his recent injury comebacks during what many view as the wasteland of his career? It required all of his optimism to push through and not let himself be crushed by those setbacks.
Because everything has healed and held up well enough, Bryant gets his final reward Wednesday: going out on his own terms.
• "If you only reach for the rim, man, you'll wind up laying the ball up. If you reach for the top of the backboard, you might dunk on somebody." (2005)
This was said before the season he made amends with Phil Jackson, scored 81 points and transformed a career that might've been just a nice layup into a historically epic jam.
It is the underdog mentality of his childhood, the underpinning that formed his legendary work ethic and the effective intimidation that stands as his legacy.
What Bryant initially did in saying he would "take my talent to the NBA," and what he now preaches to his own daughters above all, is to try.
This has been the root of his popularity: So many of his fans believe he's just different—and deserves more than everyone else—because he tries harder and wants it more.
On the flip side, it is not an equal-opportunity attitude—and other fans can't stand that Bryant believes he is somehow superior.
The truth, though, is this: Most have neither the daring nor the hops to reach for the top of the backboard. Bryant has both.
• "I have nothing in common with lazy people who blame others for their lack of success. Great things come from hard work and perseverance. No excuses." (2012)
Bryant posted this to his Facebook account. Flush with self-assurance after winning his fourth and fifth NBA titles, Bryant took a purple and gold highlighter to the line of demarcation between people such as himself and people such as Smush Parker.
No apologies for not being the nicest guy or kindest teammate. To Bryant, an unwavering faith in work ethic is the means to individual and collective greatness.
The trick, and where Bryant will admit his good fortune, is to find something you want to do so much that it doesn't feel like work.
Getting up before dawn to run on the track and going in the gym at night to practice moves you've already mastered, poring over video analysis of every single time you touch the ball in every single game, telling people the secret to your success is "complete and utter focus on what you're here to do"—these are the things that make Bryant a basketball junkie.
And make his wife call him a "workaholic."
• "What, am I gonna play 30 seasons? What more can I ask for?" (2016)
They used to say that Bryant would never be satisfied.
Perhaps he still isn't.
But he is grateful.
Bryant joked about 30 seasons back in February of this farewell season before a game in Indiana. At the previous stop of that trip, he'd said in San Antonio amid the Spurs' ongoing success: "I've eaten pretty well, so I can't complain that there's no dessert left."
The creative way Bryant is able to express his feelings is a result of him ditching that filter in 2006-07. Yet never in his previous 19 years has he been so good at being grateful.
Maybe it just wasn't a good fit for Bryant before. He needed that go-go-go, more-more-more mentality to avoid traditional human nature.
Appreciation might have bred complacency, which could have taken his edge off.
Here in the winter of his playing days, though, it was time for thanksgiving in Bryant's career. It was time for a more internal sort of validation that would last after the cheering dies.
Bryant has found it in gratitude for his career.
And with that, there can now be peace after it.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.