LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nineteen years ago, Lakers guard Byron Scott arrived at the Fabulous Forum several hours before a game to find his new teenage rookie teammate already shooting with the arena lights off.
On Wednesday, Kobe Bryant was in Staples Center several hours before the start of his 20th NBA season, patiently putting up shots with not much more than a ballboy and Los Angeles’ championship banners for company.
Scott is now Bryant’s coach, and he sees the same fire burning in his former teammate nearly two decades into an epic career.
“He’s always been driven,” Scott said. “That’s just been him, and it hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is he’s just gotten older. His passion for the game, his love for the game and his determination has been the same since Day One. He wanted to be great the day he got picked up by the Lakers, and he’s been able to achieve that.”
Although Bryant has stacked up innumerable milestones and records in the fullness of his career with the Lakers, his latest season debut contained several achievements he’ll treasure long after he’s done playing.
Bryant formally began that 20th year with the Lakers during their 112-111 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday night. He became the first player in NBA history to play 20 seasons with the same team, surpassing John Stockton’s record 19 with the Utah Jazz.
Bryant is the third-leading scorer in NBA history and a five-time champion, yet the 37-year-old’s two decades in purple and gold blow his mind.
“That’s probably the most special one to me,” Bryant said afterward. “I’ve always dreamed about being with one organization, and being with this organization as a kid. I’ve been in this jersey more than half my life. That’s crazy.”
Bryant is the fifth player in league history to play 20 seasons, joining Robert Parish, Kevin Willis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett, who started his 21st season across the Staples court with the Timberwolves.
None of the previous members of the two-decade club did it with one team, let alone under the suffocating, glamorous spotlight that accompanies the Lakers everywhere — even while they’re currently in the worst stretch of basketball in the 16-time champion franchise’s history.
“I’m just extremely fortunate, extremely blessed to have been selected by such a class organization,” Bryant said. “Twenty years, man, that’s a long time to be doing anything. In this day and age with so much turnover on teams, I feel really blessed to be here 20 years.”
Not much appeared to be different for Bryant in his first game since January, when a shoulder injury ended his season. His last three seasons have ended early due to injury.
Bryant led the Lakers with 24 points against Minnesota, but needed 24 shots to do it, including 13 3-point attempts. He missed his final eight shots of the night, and newcomer Lou Williams got the final shot for the win, missing a 4-foot runner at the buzzer.
Bryant’s ball-hawking and offensive inefficiency are maddening to some Lakers fans, standing as symbols of the franchise’s awkward straddle between its faded glory years and an intriguing future with several young talents. But Bryant’s shot-making skills and overall aura are irresistible to other fans around the world — including some on his own team.
“It’s still amazing to be out there on the court with Kobe and getting to play with him,” said Julius Randle, the second-year power forward who broke his leg in last season’s opener. “We know what he’s capable of doing and how special it is to be a part of this with him.”
Bryant doesn’t know whether this season will be his last, as he has said repeatedly for months. He is making an NBA-high $25 million in the final season of his contract with the Lakers, and while he has repeatedly said he’ll never play for another team, even Phil Jackson has suggested it’s a possibility.
Bryant shrugs off the speculation with the poise that has grown out of nearly two decades of competition and tenacity. He might not have reacted the same way to such attention earlier in his Lakers career, but Bryant has changed along with the game.
“I’m a lot calmer,” Bryant said. “More appreciative, I think.”