kobe bryant

*There’s a different type of fascination in watching Kobe Bryant these days.

Sixteen years of regular seasons, long playoff runs and national basketball commitments have taken away the jaw-dropping, high-flying ingenuity of his youth.

Yet, like an aging baseball pitcher relying on spit and guile instead of a fastball (think Pedro Martinez in his Mets years) he remains captivating to watch – somehow, more compelling as he enters his twilight years than he was when he was in his Shaq-and-Phil prime.

Part of the reason is that he’s the only modern player who can come close to Jordan – both in numbers and in temperament The LeBron – Michael comparisons have not – and will not – ever fit. James has physical skills and talents beyond even Jordan’s wondrous capabilities. You’re in awe of him…but you’re terrified of Kobe Bryant. He’s an assassin, pure and simple, just like MJ was in his prime. He’s the man who ends the hopes and dreams of other teams. Even in what seems to be a Lakers season teetering on the brink – with a hobbled Dwight Howard, an aging Steve Nash, an out-of-place Paul Gasol, a crazy Meta World Peace and an in-over-his-head Mike D’Antoni running the show – the mere fact that Kobe’s even present still keeps the Lakers in the title discussion. That’s how important he is.

The other reason Kobe’s suddenly become such a towering figure in sport? He’s decided to embrace his true personality – and that’s made him endearing, in a way.

His smiley personality of his earlier Lakers years always seemed forced; now, he’s embraced a new, moodier attitude – his inner prickliness. It’s an attitude that could only be bred of years and years of achievement and victory. Now, he has the right to be as moody as he wants to be. His press conferences are refreshingly straight-forward and frank; when asked to comment on something, he’s without a lot of the b.s. that plagues many of his contemporaries. Kobe’s started to tell it like it is, as only a veteran of his caliber and experience can. That’s something rare in this buttoned-down sports world, and it should be celebrated.

In the end, 30,000 points is only a number – just like the five rings, or the two gold medals, or the two finals MVPs or the one league MVP. They’re all be etched into his plaque in Springfield one day soon. The true measure of Kobe’s greatness, though, remains that you still can’t take your eyes off him – on or off the court – over a decade and a half into his career. That’s something no set of numbers will ever be able to convey.