Kobe Bryant leads the league with 29.3 points per game. (Michael Perez / Associated…)
PHILADELPHIA — — I am upset with Kobe Bryant, and when am I not?
I've been interviewing the guy for maybe 15 or 20 minutes after an easy win over the Philadelphia 76ers when a reporter walks up and starts talking to Kobe in Italian.
Right away, Kobe starts jabbering back in Italian, and so I explode.
"Why is it you are giving this guy all the good quotes?"
And my good buddy starts laughing, and he's been doing that a lot lately, and this is not the Kobe I've known in recent years.
I tell him he's different, suddenly the good soldier, although he still plays like a general.
He doesn't argue. He says he is different. He's older, he's easier to deal with, nary a snarl.
"I was young, extremely volatile, mercurial, but it worked," Kobe says. "Now it's a different team."
But we could count on his emotional outbursts, especially when things went awry, and how much more awry can they go?
"Phil [Jackson] was the calming factor when I would do that," he says. "He did that in Chicago; Michael [Jordan] would go off and Phil would balance it out. Now I balance it out. I have a responsibility to be more nurturing."
Just as surprising as Kobe the nice guy, there is something more difficult to understand. He's playing brilliantly, defying time and the relentless punishment his body has taken.
"I'm surprised I'm playing as well as I am," he says. "I'm surprised I have the energy."
Does he think about a time when he won't have what it takes to be the player he is now? "Absolutely," he says.
"That's part of what keeps me on edge all the time, doing the ice baths in the hotel room, stretching, therapy around the clock and eating right. I'm always on edge wondering when it's going to come time and I can't do what I want."
In this tiring stretch back East, he's played no less than 40 minutes a game, twice playing as many as 44.
"Actually my wind feels even better; I feel like I can run all day long," he says. "A lot of it just has to do with diet. I came to Philly and didn't even have a cheesesteak. That never happens.
"When I eat poorly, I can feel it. I feel heavy and sluggish."
John Ireland, a Lakers' broadcaster and the funnier partner on a radio show with some other guy in L.A., asks Kobe whether he's afraid he's going to end up looking like Page 2.
Ireland is not that funny.
"No," says Kobe. "I'm afraid I'm going to feel like he looks."
This is what happens when the Lakers win, a good time had by all and to be enjoyed because it doesn't happen all that often.
Kobe is asked about the 17 years he's been coming back home to play in Philadelphia and how many more times will he get to play here.
"Next year could be my last time," he says.
So I want to know whether he is taking this occasion to announce his retirement after next season.
"Next year could be my last time," he repeats, and when I remind him he's playing so well and he might want to keep playing, he shakes his head.
"No, it's a lot of work," he says. "I have to do a lot of, lot of, lot of work. Like every middle-aged man that feels his body is just slowing down, it keeps pushing me, but it's so much work."
Someone else wonders whether the return of Steve Nash will allow Kobe to cut back; raise your hand if you think Kobe Bryant will ever cut back.
He says Nash's return will make the Lakers better, but he's not about to start slowing down.
"I'm a scorer, man, you don't get 30,000 points without knowing how to put yourself in positions to shoot it," he says. "The ball finds scorers, and I like shooting.
"Getting up 30 shots ain't easy," he says. "A lot of people don't know how to do it. Michael took 49 shots in the Finals and lost. Can you picture me doing that?"
"Absolutely," I say and he notices the grin.
"I don't care how it gets to me," Kobe says, and now he's grinning. "I like putting it up. I'm just being honest."
I remind him he's a ball hog, and he doesn't curse, huff and puff or walk away. He really has changed.
"You have never apologized for being a ball hog," I say by way of teasing him.
"It's like superheroes," he says. "Superman could fly, Spiderman has webs, Steve can pass and I shoot."
He says "ball hog" is a fair description, well, sort of. "Whatever, I guess," he says. "I don't want to say ball hog but I do put up the shots. I'd much rather shoot than pass."
But it's difficult to hog the ball when a team has more than one superstar.
"Look at my career," he says. "When you have another dominant teammate, you have the capability of winning more and individually you sacrifice more.
"If I was playing in this [Mike] D'Antoni system when I was 21 or 23, forget it. The floor is spread and you just get to the rim."
So I ask, "Would you have 40,000 points by now?"
"If I wasn't playing with Shaq, probably," he says. "I would have scored a lot more for sure."
But that's like a lifetime ago. And so knowing how much he wants to win championships and (tongue-in-cheek) I just heard him say he's going to retire after next year, is he panic-stricken, nervous or questioning his chances now of winning another ring?
"A little bit of everything," he says, while saying he relishes the challenge now that things appear so bleak.
That's the Kobe that will never change.