Believe it: Kobe Bryant still cares

Kobe Bryant can rage with the best of 'em. On a normal day with absolutely nothing having agitated or provoked him, his motivation meter is probably at an 8 or 9. But don't let him pick up a newspaper or read something online or hear somebody on radio or TV say that he's too old, or that the tread on his tire is too worn, or that he's only the seventh-best player in the NBA, or that his wrist is too badly injured for him to be the prolific scorer we've become accustomed to over the last 15 years.

A few days ago, before the 48-point outburst against the Phoenix Suns and his 40-point shredding of the Utah Jazz on back-to-back nights, the word making the rounds in L.A. was that Kobe might shut it down for a while to let his right wrist heal. On its face, it sounded fairly logical. The wrist had ligament damage, he was in considerable pain, he'd already taken at least one shot of cortisone just to play, and we're talking about his shooting wrist/hand for crying out loud. Wasn't it possible, even advisable, that he would, or at least should, shut it down for a few weeks to let the thing heal, perhaps even have the surgery now that will surely come down the road?

That's the only question I had for Kobe a few days ago, after a Lakers home game. Of course, he was incredulous.

"Shut it down? For what?"

Because it's a painful injury.

"I've had worse. Besides, I'm not in pain after taking a shot!"

I winced; he smiled.

"How long have you known me? You actually came over here to ask me if I'm going to stop playing? You know that's not even a part of me."

But you can't take a shot of cortisone before every game!

"Of course I can. If that's what I need to do."

Every game?

"Yes, absolutely. I'm going to play, period. Anyway, once you've taken a shot, I can't feel anything. Hell, can't even feel the ball in my hand. It's numb at that point."

It's funny how the notion of apathy dogs NBA players. OK, as in any workplace in the world, the NBA has some guys who aren't exactly killing themselves for the greater good every single night. But that's an intellectually lazy stereotype and it should never come within 100 miles of Kobe Bryant, who after five NBA championships, 13 All-Star selections, an Olympic gold medal and an MVP award allows doctors to stick a needle in his wrist so he can play regular-season basketball games.

The people who say they prefer college basketball to the NBA because college kids care more than pros are entitled to their opinions, but they're largely clueless, nonetheless. How would they know that, when the cameras aren't turned on, Kobe in recent years would hold his own private practice sessions before games with former assistant coach Brian Shaw? Not a shooting session, mind you, but a sweat-soaked, limit-exploring practice session a couple of hours before games.

Look, Father Time is still undefeated, and Kobe Bryant, like every other player who ever lived, is going to become old and slow and unrecognizable. He told me on Christmas Eve that he thinks about retirement and walking away. But it damn sure isn't going to be this season, and not because of the damaged ligaments in his wrist. He's already assured of ending his career, whenever that is, as one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the NBA; and this season, his 16th, is starting out as one hell of an encore.

Angry as he was after the NBA's preposterous voiding of the trade involving the Hornets and Rockets that would have paired him with Chris Paul in the Lakers' backcourt, Kobe spent less time seething than most would have thought. After an 0-2 start, the Lakers are in first place in their division, ahead of the suddenly-celebrated Clippers, who a great many locals have mistakenly proclaimed as the No. 1 basketball attraction in town. Yes, the Clippers with their Lob City madness are must-see TV, but Kobe still leads the better team. Emphasis on team.

In the wake of the odd departure of Lamar Odom, the decline of Ron Artest/World Metta Peace and the acquisition of, well, nobody of consequence, Kobe has to score more and he's done just that, even with what he calls "our own Big Three" of him, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The three biggest scoring nights in the NBA this season are 48, 40 and 39 points. All three belong to Kobe Bryant.

Despite being the worst 3-point shooter (19.6 percent) in the league right now (remember, he can't even feel the ball as it comes off his numbed fingers), Kobe's overall shooting percentage of .459 is higher than last season's .451. And his 30.3 points per game are five points higher than last season. The 40-point performances on consecutive days marked the first time he'd done that since 2007.

"Not bad for the seventh-best player in the NBA," he has said more than once in the last week, referring to the ESPN.com ranking that places him behind (in order), LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.

OK, if you're starting a team today, you might easily select Bryant No. 7 based on the amount of time he figures to have left in the league. But the 91 "experts" considering players were asked to rank them based on the "current quality" of each player. With that in mind, there's no sane way to vote Bryant seventh. The six players above him have a total of two championships (Wade and Nowitzki), the same number of championships Kobe has won without Shaq. All six players have a total of seven appearances in the NBA Finals (James, Wade and Nowitzki two each; Howard one), the same number of Finals appearances Kobe has made all by himself.

Even if we're not talking ancient history, if we're talking about winning the game tonight, how does Howard rank ahead of Bryant? How does Paul, who hasn't been to the conference finals, rank ahead of Kobe? I can't say in good faith that I'd put LeBron above Kobe after watching Miami's last two fourth-quarter failures, not while Kobe is rallying his older team with little perimeter help in the fourth quarters of recent games.

For Kobe, who said the other night, "You know I read everything, see everything, all of it ... " the slights, real or perceived, are like gasoline being poured on his already raging fire. It's not kind of like Michael Jordan, it's exactly like Jordan. It's exactly like all the greatest of the great athletes, who are forever looking for incentive, for devices that will help drive them even harder than they already are.

"You don't want to waste your time talking to the seventh-best guy in the NBA," he said, laughing but certainly not joking.

The NBA -- any league, really -- is lucky to have a player who cares so much, after so many years and so many successes, that any little thing will drive him back to the practice court or film room. I would argue that Kobe, now more than at any other time in his career, is elevating his sport because every player on that list, above or below him, is looking at a bar, a standard, set exceptionally high.

You don't feel like playing tonight because something hurts? Kobe, who has more titles than you do, allowed a doctor to shoot up his wrist to play.

You want to sit for a few minutes in the fourth quarter tonight because it's the second game of a back-to-back and you're on the road? Kobe, with more mileage on him than a '95 Durango, just scored 40 on the road in his second of back-to-backs.

When the season began, while making preseason picks, I took Durant as my MVP, and Durant has every chance to fulfill that prediction. But as of now, at the end of the NBA's third week of play, Kobe is where he's accustomed to being. He's the best player. Will he average 30 points? Probably not. But he can still do whatever he needs to do to win a game, even if he isn't jumping as high or finishing as strongly or dominating the action as physically as he once did.

The real marvel, as it was for Jordan as he got older or Oscar as he got older or Kareem as he got older or Bird or Magic, is watching Kobe figure out new ways to win. It's the real test of remaining a champion. If he can't get to the rim as spectacularly as he once did, then Kobe will pull up short of the young shot blockers and shoot the hell out of that 12-foot jumper.

The last couple of seasons, I've been keeping track of how the Lakers do when Kobe shoots fewer than 22 times and more than 22 times, and I must say there have been more Ws when it's fewer than 22 times. But as Kobe said the other night, "Are you keeping track of how many of those shots come when we're behind late and I've got to keep shooting? My job, for a long time around here, is to score, to shoot the damn basketball. I shoot. I'm this team's shooting guard and I'm going to shoot."

Either way, nobody in professional basketball has earned the right to shoot it, whenever and from wherever, the way Kobe has. He was the last man out of the locker room the other night, and when he emerged, he was wearing a huge black protective glove. "Want to shake my oven mitt?" he said, holding up the device which restricts movement of the wrist.

It is a wonderful time to be a basketball fan in Southern California. The n'er-do-well Clippers are a fascinating watch, with CP3 delivering as promised early. The run-up to the first Lakers-Clippers game of the season, Saturday night, is filled with an anticipation unseen around L.A. ... ever. But when the two teams take the court, nobody else in either uniform is ever going to have the career Kobe Bryant has had. Perhaps nobody on the court will have the season he's having right now, 16 years in and approaching 34 years old. Probably, nobody will stay as long on the big stage. Probably, nobody will have had the personal dramas, the feuds (with Shaq and Phil Jackson), the successes.

Someday, he'll feel too old. Maybe the wrist will hurt too much. Maybe the passion will wane. But not now. He's too good. This is too much fun, not just the winning, but proving that No. 7 is insultingly low, too. Hell hath no fury like Kobe scorned. Damn, this is fun to watch.

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. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.