NEW ORLEANS -- Kobe Bryant is 34 years old. He plays a game for a living. And he does it better than just about anybody else on the planet.
It's easy to forget sometimes. Just kicking back and admiring Bryant's career seems a little misplaced when the Los Angeles Lakers have cycled through three head coaches in the first 15 games this season; when they've endured an array of injuries to Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Pau Gasol that has already muddled their championship aspirations; when even with a convincing 103-87 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday, they sit at just 9-10 overall and 2-5 on the road, with six of their next eight games coming away from Staples Center.
Yet even with the turmoil Bryant's team has to get through, Wednesday was a major reminder of the constant standard of excellence Bryant brings to his profession. Joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as only the fifth player ever to score 30,000 points in his career (while also being the youngest of the five to reach the mark) is no accident. It's a testament to Bryant's staying power.
His 36-year-old teammate Antawn Jamison knows this. He has played in the NBA for 15 seasons. Jamison has 19,402 career points, or 10,614 fewer than Bryant.
Jamison keeps a framed photo of the night when he and Bryant each went for 51 points in a game against each other, and his Golden State Warriors beat Bryant's Lakers in overtime.
The game was 12 years ago, in December 2000.
Jamison had scored 51 points the game before that epic duel against Bryant in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics. There's no framed photo of that one.
Bryant made it matter.
"We got switched out, and he's kind of guarding me on one play that I got in a frame," Jamison said. "Throughout your career, those are the special moments. To have it against him, he's going down in history as one of the best to play the game."
Jamison mentioned one other player he has a framed photo of himself with: Jordan.
"I've played with LeBron [James], I've played with [Shaquille O'Neal] and Gilbert [Arenas] at his best, but I never played with anybody who is more competitive than he is," Jamison said of Bryant.
His 21-year-old teammate Darius Morris knows this, too. Morris has played in the NBA for two seasons. He has 140 career points, or 29,876 fewer than Bryant.
Morris says he has already become a better player because of his short time playing alongside Bryant.
"The main thing is just his mental stuff wears off on you and that kind of takes over on the court," Morris said. "You see him, and he might go 0-for-18, but he's so mentally tough that when you go through something, decreased minutes or anything, you learn how to stay tough mentally, and I think that's why he's had such a great career. He's been through ups and downs, but he's always got through them."
Morris had six points off the bench Wednesday after going scoreless for the first time all season in a road loss to Houston on Tuesday. When Morris hit a 3-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer, Bryant darn-near tackled him to celebrate it, showing far more emotion in enjoying Morris' shot than he did when he hit a floater of his own in the second quarter to push him past the 30,000-point plateau.
"You always hear stories about him before you get there," Morris said. "They say he's this, he's that. But my experience, he's probably one of the best teammates that I've had, on and off the court. He's willing to help me, whether it's on the court or off-the-court situations. Really he's just always there to offer advice."
How many teammates have come and gone throughout the years like Morris -- players such as Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown and Ronny Turiaf -- who ultimately owe at least part of their success to Bryant's tutelage?
His 26-year-old teammate Dwight Howard knows this about Bryant, too. He has played in the league for nine seasons. Howard has 11,787 career points, or 18,229 fewer than Bryant.
Howard spent part of the first quarter Wednesday getting into a shouting match with Bryant over a failed defensive rotation.
"I don't have a problem with saying anything to anybody, and it should be that way," said Howard, who can point to three NBA defensive player of the year awards to Bryant's zero when accounting for the gap in their scoring totals. "We have to be able to talk to each other."
Bryant shrugged off the exchange.
"That's just how I lead," Bryant said. "It's no different. I've been that way when I was 18 and I'm the same way now. That's just how I lead. That's how I've found to be successful. At least for me, in my style of leadership and winning championships. That's just how it's going to be."
From wanting to outshine Jamison a dozen years ago to wanting to dominate rookie Austin Rivers on Wednesday, that's just how it has been for Bryant. From taking former teammate Ariza under his wing and turning him into a championship contributor to hopefully doing the same with Morris, that's just how it has been for Bryant. From butting heads with the veteran O'Neal in the battle for alpha dog status when he was a young pup to butting heads with the up-and-coming Howard in the alpha showdown even now that he's the old dog, that's just how it's going to be.
Bryant is constant. Bryant is unwavering. Bryant isn't going anywhere.
"I think now, honestly I don't know why I'm still working as hard as I am after 17 years," Bryant said. "I mean, it's just that I enjoy what I do and I think that's the thing that I'm most proud of -- every year, every day working hard at it. That's a lot of years, a lot of work."
And there's work still left to do.