CHICAGO -- It's not very often young players earn the praise of Kobe Bryant, which is why many in the pro basketball community seemed to notice last month when Bryant sought out Derrick Rose for a hug and some kind words after the Bulls' 98-91 loss in Los Angeles.
"I can tell when a player truly wants to be better and does what it takes to improve," Bryant said Thursday, one night before the rematch in Chicago. "It was a quality I had when I was growing up. I admire that about him. I could really see it from last year to this year."
It's difficult to think of Kobe as an elder statesman, but at 32 years old and in his 15th season, his blessing now means every bit as much as Michael Jordan's did in the late 1990s, when Bryant was a young pup. And Rose has caught his eye, which is one of the reasons Friday night's meeting is a big deal. We've seen enough to know now, six weeks into the season, that D-Rose wasn't being presumptuous when he essentially asked in the preseason, "Why not me?" for MVP.
"He's got a long-range ball now," Bryant said. "He can pop behind the pick and shoot the jumper. He can pull up off the dribble and shoot it, and him getting to the rim goes unquestioned. He's putting the time in the gym, and I certainly respect that."
The best sign yet of how desperately Rose wants to win came after the Bulls' narrow victory over Cleveland on Wednesday, a game that could have gone either way, the kind of game the Bulls shouldn't be nearly squandering if they have serious aspirations about contending. Rose knows winning alone isn't enough. It is if you merely want to make the playoffs, but not for teams such as the Celtics and Magic, Spurs and Lakers, for whom that's the minimum required. Rose was too annoyed to eat the postgame spread, not easily satisfied -- in the tradition of Bryant and Jordan. Rose isn't blessed with their height, but increasingly he seems to have their hatred of losing. Friday's game with the Lakers is one of those chances to see to what lengths Rose will go to not lose because Kobe is wary of all comers now.
Real challengers already have revealed themselves. "The usual suspects," Kobe called them the other night. He didn't list any names, but he didn't have to. The Celtics, Spurs and Magic probably in that order. Obviously, the Lakers expected Boston to be championship-caliber; the two just fought each other respectfully for 12 rounds in June. And Orlando, probably a half-step back, is nonetheless a finalist once removed. But the Spurs? San Antonio was rudely chased from the playoffs the last time it played on the national stage. The Spurs looked old and sickly. Tim Duncan's minutes are down, as is his scoring. Fresh faces are scattered throughout the lineup. So Kobe couldn't possibly have expected San Antonio to race off to the best record in the NBA, to play through the first six weeks of the season the way the Spurs did in '99 and '03 and '05 and '07 when they won it all.
Kobe looked at me like I was a complete fool when I asked him whether he thought the Spurs were still capable of this kind of superlative play, and said: "Of course of course. Why wouldn't I? The last couple of years they've had to deal with injuries all year long. But now they're healthy. Tim looks great. They have incredible coaching. All those guys know their roles. There's no question about them. They've been this way for a decade. Fans continue to be surprised, but they're not sneaking up on us."
These Spurs have been as much a nemesis to the Lakers as the Celtics have been; some would say more so. Before trades brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston a few years ago, the Celtics weren't much of a threat. San Antonio directly blocked the Lakers' path to the championship more than once -- yet, as Kobe said, it's not as contentious. "It's not mean," he said. "It's not nasty. Even when they're playing you, they're nice guys. Even when Tim knocks you on the floor, he'll help you up. He'll continue to kick your butt, but they play the game. They don't play that mean. Boston, they'll push you to the floor."
It's fair to wonder whether the Celtics are reserving some of their mean and nasty for the Miami Heat this time around. Bryant said he paid little attention to the obsession with the Heat all summer; wasn't even in the United States to hear a lot of it. Bryant seems so removed from it, above it, as if he's content to check in on Christmas Day, wave to the crowd again at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, then recede from view until the playoffs begin. "I don't do it," he said, "for the attention."
Thing is, Bryant will receive plenty of attention come playoff time, not for premature dancing but for all the right reasons, because he'll be approaching Jordan's mark of six NBA championships. Jordan has been a big brotherly figure to this point, saying only the most adoring things publicly about Bryant. Jordan might be even more inclined in that direction this spring because he so disapproves of the LeBron/Wade/Bosh hookup. Then again, given Jordan's legendary competitiveness, it could turn ugly if folks try for the first time to diminish Jordan's accomplishments. Bryant was dismissive of that possibility, if for no other reason than "We never played against each other not when he was in his prime."
Bryant, it sounds, still views Jordan as big brotherly, even after all these years. "Most of the things I learned have come from him. I learned a great deal from him," he said.
It might be the most at peace we've seen Kobe Bryant in his career. He's not in the tabloids. The beef between him and Shaq appears buried. The beef between him and Phil Jackson is so old it might as well have never happened. Although not too long ago everything he did was up for some kind of referendum, now it's players such as Rose who look to Kobe for some kind of confirmation. And why not, now that Bryant owns more championship rings than Shaq? LeBron is still struggling to get his first. Jordan is within Kobe's sights. The Spurs and Celtics still have to go through him. And if all that doesn't make a man feel downright secure, then probably nothing will.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.