LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant isn’t sure he’ll be ready to play when the Los Angeles Lakers open the season on Oct. 29, although he remains ahead of schedule in rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles’ tendon.
Bryant turns 35 next week and he vowed that his 17-year career is “definitely not over.”
“I just want that jewelry,” he said, referring to the possibility of claiming his sixth NBA championship.
“People just don’t understand how obsessed I am with winning.”
Bryant made his comments to late night host Jimmy Kimmel during “Kobe Up Close,” a one-on-one conversation with the NBA superstar on Thursday night at Nokia Theatre across from Staples Center.
He had a one-word answer when Kimmel asked whether he would finish his career with the only team he’s ever played for: “Yeah,” Bryant replied.
The 7,100-seat venue was full of Bryant’s fans that cheered, jeered and interrupted freely during the one-hour program. Ticket proceeds benefited the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, which works to help end homelessness.
In keeping with the reason for the event, Kimmel asked, “If there was only one homeless person in the world, would you be happy if it was Dwight Howard?”
The audience roared, mere weeks removed from Howard’s decision to leave the Lakers for Houston after one season.
“Dwight is a great kid,” Bryant said, nearly drowned out by boos. “We have different perspectives on what it takes to win.”
Kimmel kept the questions light while touching on a variety of topics well known to Bryant’s most ardent fans.
Bryant recalled that before he was drafted in 1996 by Charlotte and then traded to the Lakers, he worked out for Boston and the Clippers.
“I had a really fun and good workout with the Clippers,” he said. “They told me, `This is the best workout we’ve ever seen.'”
But he said the team told him it wouldn’t be drafting him out of high school.
“We want to turn things around with our organization and we felt like if we drafted a 17-year-old kid, the city of L.A. wouldn’t take us seriously,” Bryant said the Clippers told him.
Kimmel retorted, “They always make the best decisions.”
Bryant said Chris Paul should have ended up with the Lakers instead of the Clippers. The NBA office, which owned New Orleans at the time, decided against a deal team officials had agreed to with the Lakers.
“Chris called me and told me it was a done deal,” Bryant said. “Then he calls me back 30 minutes later and says, `You won’t believe it. David Stern killed the deal.'”
Before Bryant jumped directly from high school to the pros, he said he was recruited by Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and West Point. The military academy sent him his first college letter.
If he had gone to college, Bryant said he likely would’ve chosen North Carolina because Vince Carter had gone to Chapel Hill the previous year, and Bryant would have wanted to compete with him at practice every day.
As a teenager with a lucrative NBA contract, Bryant said he wasn’t interested in big expenditures.
“The game consumed me,” he said.
Bryant recalled his first meeting with Shaquille O’Neal over dinner at a Beverly Hills restaurant.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that he had a cellphone that was the biggest in the world,” he said.
Together, they won three consecutive NBA titles from 2000-02. But they eventually fell out and O’Neal was traded after the Lakers lost in the 2004 finals.
“It was a tough period. He and I just weren’t going to play together anymore,” Bryant said. “I had to prove I could win without him.”
It would take a while, though. Bryant and the Lakers didn’t capture another NBA title until they won two straight in 2009 and 2010.
Bryant credited Michael Jordan for giving him “phenomenal advice” on how to elevate his teammates.
“My demeanor and my temper probably calmed down a little bit,” he said. “I go into games today looking at what are my guys going through, who is struggling, what can I do to help.”
Among the famous faces in the audience were Lakers owners Jeanie and Jim Buss, general manager Mitch Kupchak, Hall of Fame baseball player Dave Winfield and former NFL receiver Terrell Owens.
Jeanie Buss was visibly touched when Bryant spoke about why so many Lakers players loved her late father, Jerry.
“He knew exactly what his vision was,” Bryant said. “He was very patient, he was very understanding. He allowed me room to grow as a person.”
Bryant said his daughters, ages 10 and 7, are playing sports, although he didn’t specify which ones.
He described them as “insanely, insanely competitive.”