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Kobe stays true to himself in what could be the beginning of the end

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant steeled his gaze at the rim and worked the edges of the arc, firing from the corner, the wing, the top of the key and so on. Through hundreds of shots, his form never wavered, and two Lakers staffers stood underneath the net, feeding him as shot after shot swooshed through.

The surrounding stands were near empty, save for Staples Center employees putting the final touches on a regular-season opener still three hours from tipoff Wednesday night. But as he stood on the precipice of history, before the beginning of what could be the very end, Bryant fired away, drenched in sweat.

Two decades ago, Lakers coach Byron Scott recalled a similar scene, one of his very first encounters with Bryant, then an 18-year-old rookie. “He was in the Forum shooting,” Scott said, “and the lights weren’t even on."

Skip ahead through titles and records, through turmoil and injury, and Lakers public address announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced a sold-out crowd to a 6-foot-6 forward from Lower Merion High School. It marked another change in a season expected to be filled with them, with Bryant sliding over as two young promising guards -- Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell -- make the backcourt their home. For so long Bryant has been the top option, but now, in the winter of his career, he's being asked to defer to and mentor players nearly half his age.

Then, as the ball was lofted skyward, Bryant embarked on his 20th campaign in purple and gold, setting a league record for the most seasons played with one franchise in NBA history, passing John Stockton of the Utah Jazz.

“I've been in this jersey for more than half my life,” Bryant said later, following his team’s 112-111 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. “That's crazy."

In his first game since tearing the rotator cuff in his right shoulder in January, Bryant missed the Lakers’ first shot of 2015-16, a 3 from the top of the key. He started 1-for-6 all told, his only bucket coming on a mid-range jumper over Andrew Wiggins, a player as old as Bryant’s NBA career.

He showed shades of his old self in the second quarter, hitting three straight shots at one point, and again in the third quarter, when he scored 6 points in less than a minute, leading to deafening “M-V-P” chants. In those spurts, Bryant looked timeless, able to play forever, the product of many gifts, sure, but also all those lonely sweat-filled hours in the gym.

“I just love playing. I just love it,” he said later. “Even now, it’s just a matter of not doing too much, because I don’t really look at it as training. I look at it as enjoying what I’m doing.”

But there were lingering concerns leading into this season, not only about how his body would hold up after three consecutive season-ending injuries, but about whether Bryant even has the ability to defer to younger players rather than trying to take over games himself.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak cracked a smile in late September when asked about that subject and Bryant’s role now that he’s surrounded by so much youth that the team must develop.

“I don’t think it will be any different than it has been in years past,” Kupchak said.

Though it’s only one game, Wednesday’s outing indicated as much.

Bryant finished with 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting, including 3-of-13 from the 3-point line. He recorded nine more shots than he did passes to his teammates, and his only assist came with 31 seconds left. He missed his final eight shots, all five of them in the fourth quarter, and tallied 16 contested shots, more than twice as many as any other Lakers player, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In short, Bryant never wavered, remaining true to himself, to the essence of the player that he has always been throughout a dominant Hall of Fame career, from the player who fearlessly fired four airballs in a playoff elimination game against the Jazz as a rookie through today. Indeed, some things just do not change, and it’s absurd to expect them to after so long, even in a season when the future of the Lakers very much depends on it.

“That timing will come back,” Bryant said. “I just haven’t played in a minute.”

There is rust to shake off, rhythm to regain, new teammates to adjust to and a minutes restriction that must be followed if Bryant expects to remain on his own two feet by season’s end.

He played 29 minutes Wednesday, and afterward Scott revealed that number is around the limit Bryant will play each night, though if a game goes to overtime, limits may go out the window.

But on a night when fans wore giveaway T-shirts that read “Our Present, Our Future,” the biggest question remained whether the Lakers can possibly balance the two. Many NBA insiders believe they cannot.

It was even more discouraging that Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft and a player the Lakers have heralded as a future superstar, played the fewest minutes of any Lakers starter (26) and didn’t play in the fourth quarter, finishing with more turnovers (three) than assists (two).

“How much rope I give him is really going to depend on him,” Scott said. “I don’t know how long the rope is going to be. It’s not going to be short. I want him to learn.”

There will be learning, but make no mistake -- more than anything this season will be a celebration of Bryant, who is in the final year of his deal with the Lakers but hasn’t yet said he’ll retire at the end of it. This could be it, though, so Bryant will receive a farewell tour even if he has said he doesn’t want one.

“I think everywhere we go, people are going to show that appreciation for him and what he’s done,” Scott said.

Scott has seen farewell tours before, namely as a teammate during Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final season after a two-decade career.

“It was a circus everywhere we went,” Scott said. “Before every game it was gifts and all this other stuff. It was crazy. A little bit of a distraction at times, more for him than us.”

Bryant said he’s “a lot calmer” and “more appreciative” now, knowing the end is near. He noted how he spoke to the media longer than he ordinarily would after the game “because, no matter what, I’m going to miss you buttheads.” On the court, he’ll savor the little moments, the encounters with familiar faces such as Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, both of whom he faced in past Finals.

“I told Tay, for old guys, we’re moving pretty well,” Bryant said. “It didn’t feel like I could’ve babysat the entire floor, fathered the entire floor. It felt good to have some peers out there.”

All around him now is youth, the next generation, the fifth, by his count, from Michael Jordan through Tim Duncan through LeBron James and now today’s latest wave.

“I’ve seen a lot of players grow,” he said.

So much has changed, but Kobe Bryant remains, unwavering, for better or worse, until the end.